Background: Immigration Detention in Canada and the New Refugee Prison in Laval

Is the imprisonment of migrants in Canada new?

No. Canada has detained migrants and refugees since it was founded as a state, inheriting the practice from England, which used it to control access to the lands it had colonized. At various times through its history, Canada has detained migrants in quarantine and internment camps, sheds at entry ports, converted hotels, and regular prisons.

Currently, there are three dedicated migrant prisons: the Laval Immigration Prevention Centre, the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, and the Vancouver International Airport holding centre. A new centre is under construction in Surrey, BC. Canada also continues to detain migrants in provincial prisons.

Why do you call it a prison instead of a detention centre?

‘Detention centre’ is a word used to try to conceal the violence of imprisonment. We call it a prison to make clear that people are being held against their will, caged, to the detriment of their mental and physical health.
We also use the word prison to connect immigrant detention and deportation with criminal incarceration. We see the immigration and carceral systems as working together to control and exploit the labour, land and resources of colonized peoples, both here in Canada and globally.

Why is the government building a new prison? What is the National Immigration Detention Framework (NIDF)?

In 2011, 2013 and again 2016 migrants detained for long periods in provincial prisons in Ontario went on hunger strike to demand an end to Canada’s inhumane treatment of migrants. In the same period, several more people, including Lucia Vega Jimenez, Jan Szamko, Melkioro Gahungu, and Abdurahman Hassan died in immigration detention.

In response, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale issued the National Immigration Detention Framework (NIDF). The NIDF allocated $138 million over 5 years towards the construction of two new migrant detention centres and ‘alternatives to detention.’ Far from addressing the underlying problem, these investments effectively strengthen and expand the state’s detention system.

Why are migrants and refugees detained?

Detention is a key tool in controlling migration to Canada. Migrants and refugees are detained in order to facilitate their deportation from Canada.

There are three legal grounds which the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) invokes to detain individuals: flight risk (belief that the person will not voluntarily comply with their deportation); the person is unable to convince the CBSA of their identity; or the individual is suspected of being a danger to the public (this includes risk of suicide). 80.6% of detentions are made on the grounds “flight risk.”

Is there a limit to time spent in immigration detention in Canada?

No. Canada is one of the few countries in the world which detain people indefinitely, meaning that people can be imprisoned for months or even years and have no idea when (or if) they will be released. For example, Ebrahim Toure was detained for five and a half years as a flight risk before his release in 2018.

Detainees are currently brought before the Immigration and Refugee Board once a month to review their detention; if it is upheld, the detention continues. The Supreme Court finally ruled in May 2019 that habeas corpus rights apply to migrant detainees. This will have an impact on long-term detainees.

Are children detained in Canada?

Yes. Even though the Minister of Public Safety announced in 2018 that Canada would try to stop detaining children, minors are still regularly imprisoned with their parents in Canada. In 2017-2018, 144 minors were detained in facilities across Canada. Others were separated from their detained parents. Plans for the new prison in Laval show that there is every intention of continuing the practice: they include a playground for children and a family room where detained fathers can visit their detained children.

A study unsurprisingly found that children detained in Canada have difficulty sleeping, lose their appetite for food and interest in play, and develop symptoms of depression and separation anxiety, as well as a variety of physical symptoms; many of these symptoms persisted after release from detention (cf Rachel Kronick, 2014).

The New Refugee Prison in Laval

The new refugee prison is designed to hold 158 migrants and refugees. It is being built on Correctional Service of Canada grounds, right beside Leclerc prison. Fencing around the prison is supposed to be covered by foliage to limit the “harshness of look,” the iron bars over the windows are to be “as inconspicuous as possible to the outside public,” and the children’s area is to be hidden by a six-foot high “visual barrier.” While presented as a friendlier, more “humane” facility, it is clear that the government is very concerned with concealing the carceral nature of the prison.

Ultimately, the new prison is part of a $138 million investment into the government’s capacity to detain and deport migrants and refugees.

What are “alternatives to detention”?

Another element of the National Immigration Detention Framework is what the government calls “alternatives to detention”. While these programs only make up around 4% of the plan’s budget, they been central to its marketing, presented as a more humane approach to controlling migrants.

In reality, these technologies allow the state to expand its capacity for surveillance and control of migrants outside of prisons, for example through a GPS phone reporting system that forces migrants to make regular check-in calls and catalogues and scans their voice prints. In addition, they will not lead to a decrease in the number of people being placed in detention.

More on immigration detention in Canada:

More on the proposed project: