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Highly renowned for many of its progressive stances on human rights, Canada falters in its detention of immigrant children.

Between 2010 and 2014, around 242 children were held in Canadian immigration detention each year. By formally detaining immigrant children in facilities that resemble medium security prisons, Canada is violating both international agreements and its own image as a global champion of human rights.

When an immigrant’s status is undefined or when Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers are unable to verify an immigrant’s identity, immigrants can be detained. According to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, an immigrant may be detained without a warrant if the CBSA believes that he or she is a flight risk, a danger to the public, or is unable to prove identity, among other reasons. These guidelines apply to child immigrants as well, though the regulations state that children should only be detained as a last resort.

When children are detained in Canada, the facilities vary by location. In Ontario and Quebec, children are generally detained in one of two Immigration Holding Centres (IHCs), which resemble medium security prisons and are intended for long-term stays. Where long-term ICHs are unavailable, children can be housed in short-term IHCs or juvenile correctional facilities. Short-term IHCs are not equipped for stays of longer than 48 hours and immigrant children sent to correctional facilities are often intermingled with juvenile offenders. When children are detained with their parents, mothers and children are separated from fathers and are only able to reunite for short visits each day.

Children in detention facilities have limited access to education, emotional and mental health services, and important childhood development elements such as free play. The CBSA has only committed to providing education to children in IHCs after seven days of detention, and all sessions are held on-site, rather than at locations outside the facilities. Additionally, education is often only available for certain age groups and there are no official guidelines that determine the quality or amount of educational programs available to detained immigrant children. In IHC facilities, children do have access to health care; however, the facilities do not provide vital mental and emotional assistance. While some IHCs provide outdoor recreation space for children, this is often limited to a yard with a concrete surface and some old playground toys. Indoor stimulation is typically limited to television. Children within the facilities have difficulty socializing due to the transient nature of the immigration detention population.

Even short periods of detention have profound effects on Canada’s immigrant children. Studies on immigrant detainees in Canada have found that children experience “high rates of psychiatric symptoms, including self-harm, suicidality, severe depression, regression of milestones, physical health problems, and post-traumatic presentations. Younger children in detention also experience developmental delays and regression, separation anxiety and attachment issues, and behavioral changes, such as increased aggressiveness.” Family separation compounded with detention only increases the likelihood of harm. Even after children are released from detention, the mental and emotional effects are likely to continue.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada has both signed and ratified, states that “[t]he arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” Further, the Convention states that all children have the right to free and compulsory education and that every child has a right to “a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” Canada has been detaining children who pose no threat to themselves or their communities, separating them from their parents, and failing to provide substantial education as well as opportunities for emotional and mental growth and health care. As such, Canada is violating the terms of the Convention. Canada’s blatant disregard of the international guidelines regarding child detention puts many immigrant children at risk for long term mental and emotional distress.

There are alternatives to detention that should be used for immigrant children and families. Reporting requirements, financial deposits, and supervision programs all have high levels of compliance and are less costly to the government than detention. Permitting children and families to remain in their communities while their immigration statuses are being investigated will cause less disruption in children’s education, growth, and development. Although Canada has shown a decrease in detained immigrant children in recent years, the country still fails its detained immigrant children by violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child.