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How Does Immigration Detention Work in Canada?

With the migrant crisis on top of mind in the United States and in the Mediterranean countries, many Canadians are asking how the immigration process works at our borders.

Who would know the answer better to this question than Ralph Goodale, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness!

Here is his take:

Every day, at 117 land ports of entry, 13 international airports and 27 rail sites, officers of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) deal with more than 250,000 travellers seeking to come into this country. They are Canadians returning home, Americans and others coming here to do business, visitors and tourists from around the world, new immigrants following the correct procedure to make Canada their new home, refugees fleeing from abuse and hopelessness, and others.

CBSA carries a serious and difficult responsibility under the law – to protect the integrity of Canada’s borders and to keep Canadians safe, while also facilitating the free and legitimate movement of both people and trade.

The vast majority of border encounters are brief and routine. But a few present serious problems, especially when an individual wanting to enter or remain in Canada:

  • has not met the legal requirements set by Parliament to do so, or
  • cannot be identified with certainty, or
  • is a flight risk
  • or threatens the safety of Canadians.

In these limited circumstances, CBSA officers are empowered to detain that person until the defects in their status are corrected or security issues are resolved.

Given the huge volume of people seeking entry to Canada, it is not surprising that there is an average of 400 individuals detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act at any given time. These make up less than 0.01% of travellers to Canada per year.

So what is the best way to handle their situations?

First, CBSA is required by law to consider all reasonable alternatives before detention. Detention is always a last resort. In the majority of cases, individuals are detained for only a very short time.

Secondly, every decision to detain an individual is subject to immediate and regular legal reviews by a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The IRB is an independent tribunal, focused on immigration law. In reviewing detention cases, the IRB has the full authority to release the individual, identify future conditions for release, or maintain the detention.

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognizes Canada’s refugee system as among the best in the world, the current government is working on improving both the process and outcomes.

Two of their objectives are:

1. to increase the availability of effective alternatives to detention and thus reduce the overall number of cases in which detention is the only technique that can be used to deal with difficult problems of identification, flight risk or danger to the public

2. to reduce the use of provincial jails for immigration detention by making safe, federally-operated facilities specifically designed for immigration purposes (thus avoiding the intermingling of immigration/refugee cases with criminal elements).