Canada Evades Tough Questions by UN Experts on Detention of Migrants

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, a body comprised of international law experts from around the world, repeatedly asked Canada for answers regarding its indefinite detention of migrants, the lack of alternative to detention for those with mental health issues, and the failure to provide meaningful oversight over the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). 

Unfortunately, clear answers on how Canada plans to uphold it international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which include obligations to avoid arbitrary detention and cruel treatment, were not forthcoming. Instead, Canada, represented by head of delegation Laurie Wright, Assistant Deputy Minister in the Department of Justice, deflected questions about the treatment of migrants who are routinely detained in maximum security provincial jails, sometimes for years on end.

The International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law (IHRP) submitted a written brief to the Committee, and also appeared in person in Geneva to discuss the plight of immigration detainees. In her statement to the Committee, Renu Mandhane, the executive director of the IHRP, read a letter by an immigration detainee currently held in Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario. Tyron Richard, a 27-year old man, laments the separation from his family caused by indefinite detention: “The last time that I saw my children I had dropped them off to school and daycare before heading off to work. That leaves them very confused and saddened, wondering where I am and when I am coming home,” wrote Mr. Richard, “That is a question that I am often faced with during the limited time that I get to speak to them on the phone.  A question that I cannot answer…”

Drawing from submissions made by the IHRP, the Committee repeatedly demanded answers from the Canadian delegation on the treatment of migrants held in detention. They asked why there was no statutory limit on the time spent in detention, why there was no oversight of CBSA which exercised powers akin to law enforcement, and why vulnerable migrants were being held in common jails.  These questions came from a number of the experts, including from members from the United States, Germany, and Uganda.

In response to questions from the experts, Canada reiterated its policies that pay lip-service to alternatives to detention.  Paul McKinnon, a representative from Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness noted that the average time spent in immigration detention was 23 days, but did not address the fact that there are no time limits on detention and numerous documented cases of long-term and indefinite detention. In relation to calls for CBSA oversight, Mr. McKinnon simply stated that CBSA staff were subject to professional codes of conduct and that there are complaints mechanisms available to travelers and businesses, neither of which addresses the concerns of migrants. 

Canada also stated that it has an agreement with Canadian Red Cross Society to monitor immigration detention centres, but neglected to mention that Ontario, which accounts for 60% of detainees, has blocked access to Red Cross detention monitors for years.

“We hope this Committee of esteemed experts from around the world will see through the smoke and mirrors of the Canadian delegation,” said Mandhane, “We urge the UN to recommend that Canada legislate effective oversight over CBSA, place time limits on detention of migrants without charge, and create meaningful alternatives to detention for vulnerable migrants such as those with mental health issues, torture-survivors, and asylum-seekers.”

This is the first time Canada has appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee in the 9 years since the Conservative government was elected to Parliament. In a question put to the Canadian delegation, Sir Nigel Rodley, the expert from the UK, lamented the unprecedented crackdown on human rights defenders and freedom of expression, stating that “this is not the Canada I once knew.”

An official summary of Canada’s review by the UN Human Rights Committee, which took place over two days (July 7-8), can be found here. The Committee will deliver its Concluding Observations and Recommendations on July 23.

Available for comment:

Renu J. Mandhane (Ms.), B.A., J.D., LL.M.

Executive Director

International Human Rights Program

University of Toronto, Faculty of Law

39 Queen's Park, Room 106

Toronto, Ontario  M5S 2C3


Tel: 416.946.8730