August 20, 2015 – Anna Mehler Paperny and Patrick Cain, Global News
Canada’s Red Cross has formally signed a letter of understanding allowing its inspectors to visit immigration detainees being held in Ontario jails, after years of fruitlessly demanding access.
Global News reported last fall that Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services was in the process of negotiating an access agreement with the Red Cross, which inspects the conditions of detainees held by Canada’s Border Services officials to ensure their human rights are being met.
In multiple annual reports to the Canada Border Services Agency, the Red Cross condemned the practice of putting immigration detainees in provincial jails, and made its case repeatedly to be allowed to inspect the conditions of people held in Ontario.
The 2008-09 Red Cross report described access to Ontario jails as a “work in progress.”
The 2013 report said the Red Cross “remains concerned that it cannot currently fulfill its mandate to monitor the detention conditions of all places where immigration detainees are being held in Canada.”
In October, Ontario’s correctional minister Yasir Naqvi said the province was “working on finalizing an agreement with the Canadian Red Cross so that they have more regular access to immigration detainees.”
But no agreement materialized for another eight months.
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More than 200 immigration detainees — refugee claimants, permanent residents and anyone else who doesn’t have Canadian citizenship — are held in Ontario’s notoriously overcrowded jails. Many of them are there indefinitely, without charge.
The Canada Border Services Agency has admitted it often funnels the sickest, most vulnerable detainees to these jails because, as demonstrably inadequate as jails’ health services are, they’re better than what CBSA facilities can offer.
READ MORE: Sick, traumatized, jailed indefinitely
The letter of understanding, signed June 16 and obtained by Global News, states that Red Cross representatives will be allowed to access Ontario jails “at specific times and in accordance with specific procedures” that may vary from one institution to another. It’s valid for five years.
“Visits to the 11 provincial correctional institutions in Ontario are expected to commence in the fall of 2015,” Red Cross spokesperson Natalie Moncur said in an email.
It permits the Red Cross to conduct “a minimum of four visits per facility annually,” to be “where possible, agreed upon and scheduled in advance,” and requires anyone visiting to undergo police background checks beforehand. The province has also agreed to provide the Red Cross “with basic non-identifying information” about the detainees being held in its jails, including their nationality and how many there are in each facility.
“In cases where advance notice is not possible or not appropriate, the [Red Cross] will be permitted reasonable access to the correctional facility taking account of necessary security measures,” the agreement reads.
Red Cross personnel will be allowed to tour the detainees’ living units, medical facilities, food service and recreation areas, as well as conducting private, confidential interviews, “provided the detainees have consented.”
Multiple human rights groups in Canada and abroad have raised concerns about Canada’s practice of detaining vulnerable people indefinitely without charge while it tries to deport them or simply process their cases.
As Global News has reported, Canada’s Border Services Agency has been less than transparent when it comes to releasing information about people who’ve died in its custody.