B.C.’s immigrant detainees suffer from overcrowding, lack of mental health services: Red Cross

posted on September 25, 2014

By Brian Morton, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

By Brian Morton, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

A confidential Red Cross investigation found numerous shortcomings at facilities in B.C. for immigrant detainees, including overcrowding in short-term holding areas, a lack of mental health support services, and family members unable to contact each other.

The B.C. findings were contained in a 48-page Canadian Red Cross Society (CRCS) inspection report on shortcomings across Canada that included triple-bunked cells, lack of support for detained children, and — because there are no dedicated cells in many part of the country — newcomers often held in provincial jails or police facilities alongside suspected gang members and violent offenders.

The report also cited Mexican national Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, who died in hospital after attempting to hang herself in the immigration holding centre in the basement of Vancouver International Airport last December while awaiting deportation. An inquest into her death begins Monday.

The Red Cross report cited several shortcomings in B.C., including concerns with the holding cells at Pacific Region Inland Enforcement Section.

It said cells meant for six or eight people were used to hold up to 16 people.

“The CRCS has also observed that when minors or female detainees are present, there is little room to separate detainees which exacerbates the space constraints. Additionally, there is very little privacy for using the toilet.”

Other B.C. concerns cited by the CRCS included:

• a lack of regular mental health professionals at the B.C. Immigration Holding Centre, particularly for those being held for a long period of time;

• barriers to maintaining contact with family members;

• an automated phone system that is difficult to use for those who don’t speak English;

• a push toward video conferencing as the sole means of maintaining family contact in Alberta and potentially in B.C., where it is now being piloted at the Surrey Pre-trial Services Centre, which may negatively impact family contact.

Through an agreement with the Canada Border Services Agency, the independent humanitarian organization monitors the treatment and conditions of people detained in Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

The border agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public, and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.

The Red Cross made 28 recommendations to help close various “protection gaps” noted by inspectors during 63 visits to facilities in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

The organization makes a confidential annual report to the border agency, which released the findings for 2012-13 under the Access to Information Act.

Agency spokesman Pierre Deveau said a number of steps have been taken to address the Red Cross’s concerns, adding in an emailed statement that it takes its responsibility “very seriously.” However, he did not provide details and refused to make anyone available to discuss the report.

While the border agency operates holding facilities in three provinces, an estimated 3,952 immigration detainees were housed across Canada in 2012 in correctional institutions, commingled with criminal populations. (Data for the first quarter of 2013 was unavailable.)

The practice can be “extremely stressful” for some newcomers to Canada, the report says, particularly those who have experienced armed conflict, torture, and other traumatic experiences.

In Alberta and Quebec correctional facilities, overcrowding was “a persistent concern,” including triple-bunking — three people in a cell intended for one.

In general, the inspectors found border agency holding centres provided detainees a safer environment and better access to support services, legal advice, phone cards and visitors.

In 2012, an estimated 291 minors were detained under immigration laws, but cautioned the numbers may be higher.

The Red Cross urged the border agency to implement a national policy governing minors in detention.

Inspectors found the border agency had no facility that could appropriately accommodate a complete family unit of mother, father and children without having to separate family members.

The Red Cross recommends the border agency ensure alternatives to detention are available in all provinces.

The agency is studying various options including expanded use of telephone reporting and electronic ankle bracelets to keep track of people instead of locking them up.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has repeatedly raised many of the issues flagged by the Red Cross, noting that the border services agency typically says it can’t control conditions imposed by provincial authorities.

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