Historic Vote Urges Canadian Province to Stop Jailing Immigration Detainees

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A major Canadian city has made a historic move to help protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.

Vancouver’s City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to urge the province of British Columbia to terminate its immigration detention contract with the federal government. The contract allows the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to incarcerate immigration detainees in British Columbia’s jails. No other Canadian city has taken this step.

At the hearing, city officials heard from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and Rainbow Refugee.

They also heard from Abdelrahman Elmady and Sara Maria Gomez Lopez, who experienced immigration detention after arriving in Canada to seek asylum.

Abdelrahman, who has a hearing disability and is a father of two boys, told the councillors how he was jailed in British Columbia without charge: “I was handcuffed and shackled. My belongings were taken away, including the rechargeable batteries to my hearing aids.… My faith in Canada was violently shattered, and I was alone, in jail, and in silence.”

Sara was also arrested after she made a refugee claim in British Columbia. “I never understood why CBSA incarcerated me in … a maximum-security provincial jail,” she said. “I turned into an inmate, a number, a faceless nobody.”

Today, Sara works as an outreach and intake supervisor at the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, supporting refugee claimants and newcomers. “I believe in a better Canada,” she told the councillors.

The councillors passed the motion unanimously. Councillor Jean Swanson, who introduced the motion, observed, “That’s probably the most powerful 45 minutes I’ve experienced here in Council.” 

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Over the past five years, CBSA incarcerated hundreds of people solely on immigration grounds in British Columbia’s provincial jails, including in maximum-security facilities. People are most commonly detained because a CBSA officer believes they may not appear for an immigration or refugee proceeding. In detention, they are regularly handcuffed, shackled, and held with little to no contact with the outside world. Immigration detainees can be held for months or years without end in sight.

Since the launch of the #WelcomeToCanada campaign in 2021, British Columbia’s government undertook a review of its immigration detention contract with CBSA, which is scheduled to be finalized this month. In March, a coalition of Canadian social justice, academic, and grassroots organizations launched a 14 Days of Action campaign calling on British Columbia to end its contract.

With the Vancouver City Council motion added to the mix, it’s time the government cancels the contract.

 

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