Let’s End Child Detention in Canada

In December of 2008, an 11-year old girl and her mother were detained in Canada after making a refugee claim. Though they had family members already in Canada and had submitted their proper documents at the border, they were detained on the grounds of inadequate identity. The young girl and her mother spent a total of 31 days in detention, without any proper source of schooling or stimulation suitable for a child. In the eyes of the Canadian government, this was seen to be in the best interest of the child.

In March 2020, Human Rights Watch accused Canada of significant human rights violations due to their child immigration detention practices. Since 2014, more than 850 children have spent time in Canadian immigration detention. Although the number of children in detention has decreased, the average length of time that children spend in detention has increased, peaking at 18.6 days in 2018.

While most Canadians are familiar with the detention of children in the United States, many assume it doesn’t happen here. Those that do might assume that children stay in relatively comfortable lodgings. Unfortunately, many refugee children in Canada are living in tightly-packed detention centres.

To live up to our international human rights commitments and our reputation as a country that welcomes refugees, Canada must immediately put an end to child detention.

Child Detention

A report by CTV News gives a glimpse of what Canadan detention centres look like. In some cases, men and women are held separately, with the children being placed with their mothers. Janet Dench, the executive director for the Canadian Council for Refugees, points out that though refugees are provided with meals and snacks throughout the day, the amenities in the detention centres are very limited. Internet access is not permitted, which makes it difficult for families to keep in contact with others back home that could help them obtain the documents needed to help get them out of detention.

Most Canadians likely assume that refugees are only detained when suspicious activity is involved. But detention occurs for a multitude of reasons. An immigration officer may believe that the refugee in question poses a “flight risk,” meaning that officers fear they will likely leave the country before their hearing. More commonly, children and families are detained because of issues with their identity documents. In some instances, refugees are “detained” without officially being recorded.

Invisibly detained children

Official detention numbers don’t reflect the many cases where refugee children are considered “invisibly detained.” A child is invisibly detained when only the parent is formally detained while the child is accompanying them in the detention centre. The cases of Alex and Dominique offer examples of invisibly detained children. In 2019, they accompanied their mother when she crossed the border into Quebec seeking refugee status. Because they didn’t have the proper documents to confirm their identities, they were all sent to a detention centre outside of Montreal. All three of them were forced into a detention centre, yet only the mother was officially recorded as being detained there.

This gives Canadians an inaccurate depiction of how (and how many) children are being detained. What’s more, because these children are left out of official figures, they do not appear before the Immigration and Refugee Board and are therefore unable to access the same legal protections as children who are officially detained. This is extremely harmful, as it hides many children from the possibility of receiving assistance in removing them from detention centres.

Effects of child detention

The psychological and emotional effects that result from detention are extremely traumatic, especially since many of these children have already experienced trauma in their home countries. What makes child detainment situations so much worse is that the additional stress and mental health issues that come out of them are completely avoidable.

Research has shown that even in cases of short-term detention, children can have long-lasting negative health impacts. This stems from the fact that children in detention centres live in penitentiary-like conditions that physically and emotionally resemble jail. Detention centres are institutions with bland and bare walls, heightened security, and little to no stimulation for young children. Research conducted in Canadian immigration detention facilities shows increased levels of extreme stress, fear, anxiety, and selective mutism, as well as “a deterioration of cognitive, physical and emotional functioning.”

The Best Interests of the Child

In 2001, the Parliament of Canada passed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) that included a new principle on the best interests of the child. This is an international principle from the Convention on the Rights of the Child that ensures children enjoy the full and effective benefit of all their rights. These principles are meant to ensure that Canada makes the best interests of the child a primary consideration.

Instead, the ambiguous language in the convention has been exploited to make these situations more dangerous. Under Canadian immigration law, children are only to be detained as a “last resort,” or in the child’s “best interest,” regardless of issues such as flight risk or insufficient identity documents. Both “last resort” and “best interest” are ambiguously framed in the IRPA, giving authorities a lot of discrepancy in decisions that force children into detention centres. The concept of “last resort” needs to be redefined or elaborated on in order to protect refugee and immigrant children. This is the core of the problem that has led to many refugee children being placed in harmful and degrading situations. Rather than saying that detention should be a last resort, it should be made clear that non-detention should be the default situation when integrating refugee children and families into Canada.

Canada must end these inhuman and unfair conditions in Canada’s detention centres and ensure that the basic human rights for children and refugees coming into Canada are met accordingly. Refugees are fleeing their home countries due to persecution while Canada mistreats many of them upon arrival. For Canada to maintain a positive reputation and continue aiding refugees while ensuring their human rights, child detention must end immediately.

Photo credit: John MacDonald/Flickr


  • Erin Kehler was CPJ's Laurentian Leadership Centre student intern in Fall 2020.

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