“We Have No Rights”: Arbitrary imprisonment and cruel treatment of migrants with mental health issues in Canada

In brief

Every year thousands of non-citizens (“migrants”) are detained in Canada. Nearly one third are held in facilities intended for those who are convicted of crimes, rather than in immigration holding centres. One of the factors considered in deciding to transfer a detainee from an IHC to a provincial jail is the existence of a mental health issue.

" 'We Have No Rights':  Arbitrary imprisonment and cruel treatment of migrants with mental health issues in Canada" is a report that resulted from an investigation by the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. It shows that, despite their vulnerable status, migrants with mental health issues are routinely imprisoned in maximum-security provincial jails – sometimes for many years. Such imprisonment worsens existing mental health problems and often creates new ones, including increasing thoughts of suicide. In addition, migrants in detention often don’t receive the mental health care they need.

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Title and link to the report: “We Have No Rights”:  Arbitrary imprisonment and cruel treatment of migrants with mental health issues in Canada

Authors: Hanna Gros and Paloma van Groll, the International Human Rights Program, the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law 

Year: 2015

Location: Toronto

Type of study: Mixed methods: Interviews with lawyers, paralegals, correctional staff, doctors, mental health experts, immigration detainees, and former detainees. Review of documents obtained through government access-to-information requests 

Population: Migrants with mental health issues detained in Canada 

Keywords: Migrants, immigrants, newcomers, non-citizens, detainees, prisoners, immigration, migration, criminalization, incarceration, imprisonment, detainment, detention, jail, prison, mental health, mental illness, Canada, human rights 

Contact person/source: Renu Mandhane (Editor), Director, International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, 416-946 8730, enu [dot] mandhane [at] utoronto [dot] ca

Language: English

What this report is about

Every year thousands of non-citizens (“migrants”) are detained in Canada. Nearly one third are held in facilities intended for those who are convicted of crimes, rather than in immigration holding centres. One of the factors considered in deciding to transfer a detainee from an IHC to a provincial jail is the existence of a mental health issue. 

This report is the result of an investigation by the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. It shows that, despite their vulnerable status, migrants with mental health issues are routinely imprisoned in maximum-security provincial jails – sometimes for many years. Such imprisonment worsens existing mental health problems and often creates new ones, including increasing thoughts of suicide. In addition, migrants in detention often don’t receive the mental health care they need. 

The authors state that the treatment of migrants with mental health issues represents a “legal black hole” in Canada. Neither the Canada Border Services Agency nor provincial jails have clear authority over decisions about the conditions in which migrants are held or their health and safety. They also assert that the treatment of immigration detainees with mental health issues in Canada violates international law. 

The report ends with recommendations to national, provincial, and international bodies. These include recommendations to:

  • Amend laws and regulations concerning immigration detention;
  • Better monitor provincial jails and decision-making bodies;
  • Increase training on diversity, human rights, and alternatives to detention;
  • Enhance screening to identify vulnerable individuals; 
  • Improve migrants’ access to health services, along with legal, spiritual, family, and community supports;
  • Further investigate the current state of immigration detentions in Canada. 

This study was released to coincide with World Refugee Day and will be presented in person to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva in July, 2015.

How this report can be used

This report can be used to inform the public about the detainment of non-citizens with mental health issues in Canada. Policymakers and legal professionals can also use it to learn about suggested alternatives to current policy and practice that would improve the general treatment of migrants with mental health conditions.