Handcuffs, Shackles, and Jail Bars: What a Canadian Welcome Ought Not to Be

Canada prides itself on setting historic immigration targets and agreeing to resettle more refugees than most other countries. But Canada also continues to restrict asylum eligibility and increase restrictive border control measures, including holding asylum seekers in detention centres. Can Canada truly claim to be a safe haven while simultaneously transgressing the rights of those seeking safety or a better life?

Between April 2019 and March 2020, almost 9,000 people in Canada were held in immigration detention centres and provincial jails, including 138 infants and children. These individuals, and the many that have followed, are detained solely based on their immigration status, without committing any act that would warrant incarceration. Yet, they are handcuffed, shackled, searched, and can be subjected to solitary confinement with no set release date.

Most Canadians, including some of those supportive of refugee and migrant rights, are unaware of this cruel reality. In response, CPJ recently partnered with Human Rights Watch to organize the February 2022 event, “Human Rights Violations in Immigration Detention: An Interfaith Call to Action,” as part of the #WelcomeToCanada campaign. The event gathered members of different faith traditions from across the country to learn about immigration detentions and explore ways to effect change.

Religious communities have been at the forefront of welcoming refugees across Canada for decades and play a significant role in advocating against unjust practices that transgress human dignity. The session modeled the interfaith spirit of the call to action by featuring Christian, Jewish, and Muslim panelists.

CPJ members and interfaith partners have shown earnest support for this campaign. We coordinated an interfaith statement calling for the Government of Canada and provincial governments to abolish all immigration detention, which has gathered more than 150 signatures from individuals and organizations across the country. Several event participants have sent letters to the Minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino, calling for an end to these unjust and inhumane practices.

Handcuffs, shackles, and jail bars are the antithesis of a warm welcome. Canada must cease to criminalize migration and ought instead to respect the right to seek asylum. It is time for Canada to truly welcome people seeking safety or a better life.

Photo credit: © 2021 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

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