Unconscionable abuse of ‘invisible’ Canadian children

It is a shame and a scandal that we have an immigration detention system that has deprived hundreds of Canadian children of their basic human rights as well as of their special human rights as children.

These are the Canadian children of non-Canadian parents. They are being denied their human rights when they are “allowed” to stay with their parent(s) as “guests” in our immigration detention centres or when they are separated from their detained parents.

What does that situation say about the kind of society that we are?

Does it truly reflect the kind of society that we claim to be as a welcoming, respectful and humane haven for all?

How can we claim the moral high ground in the international community of nations?

Does our de-facto detention of these children not demonstrate that Canada is one of the western democracies that, in some important ways, do not deserve to consider themselves as part of the so-called “free world”, the so-called “civilized” democracies?

As we move forward in the search for solutions for those challenges, we are deeply indebted to the authors of a recently released Report entitled “Invisible Citizens: Canadian Children in Immigration Detention”.

The Report came out of an investigation conducted by the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto.

Following up on its earlier Report of September 2016 (“No Life for a Child”: A Roadmap to End Immigration Detention of Children and Family Separation) the IHRP team held interviews with nine detained and formerly detained mothers of Canadian children from the Middle East, West Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The tales of woe revealed by those mothers detailed the painful effects on their children’s physical and mental health, their social development and their education. More often than not, the damage done to their mental health followed the children right into all aspects of their adult life.

Historically, attempts to address this grave social injustice were handicapped by a catch-22 situation. The vicious circle in which the children have been trapped is laid out in the Introduction to the Report:

“Canadian children living in detention have been a largely invisible population, and the central task of this report is to make their existence and their plight visible.

“The invisibility of their detention has been achieved and sustained by several related features of the system.

“First, CBSA [Canadian Border Services Agency] denies that they are formally detained under the authority of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Since there is no legal category of “guest of the CBSA,” these Canadian children in detention are invisible in law.

“Second, because these children do not exist as “detainees,” the Immigration Division has consistently refused to acknowledge them for purposes of detention review, or to take their interests into account when making decisions about the detention of their parents.

“Third, Canada’s federal government has resisted gathering and disclosing data on the number of citizen children in detention, on the basis that they do not count as “detained.”

“And finally, initiatives by individual lawyers to publicize the plight of citizen children and their parents have been thwarted by the very genuine and valid fear that speaking out on behalf of their clients would only trigger speedier deportation or forcible separation of children from parents.”

But there is some good news.

For a start, it is very fortunate that all government departments and agencies agree with the non-profit, the academic and the child advocacy groups that the existing policies and practices do have highly undesirable effects on the children,

It also appears reasonably clear that the Report’s eleven (11) recommendations, repeated from the previous study, can be implemented even before the formal amendments to the existing laws and regulations are completed.

Another positive factor is that the solutions proposed in the Report are far more cost-effective than the existing practices.

Those solutions all revolve around two policy options: outright release of parents who do not pose any threat to society, with appropriate reporting obligations, financial deposits, and financial guarantors; or accommodation in community-based alternatives to detention.

We wholeheartedly endorse the Report’s recommendations and are comforted by the fact that so far there have been no reservations from any quarters on these two-year-old proposals.

This shameful, systemic abuse of children’s human rights can and must be stopped, starting right now.

We repeat another principle put forward in the Introduction to the Report: the objective is to ensure that “no infant or child — Canadian or otherwise — is deprived of the love and care of parents, or deprived of contact with the rest of the world that lies beyond bars and thick plexiglass windows.”