Canadian media outlets have been fixated on the U.S. government’s mistreatment of migrants and refugees. With refugee admissions into the United States already capped at historic lows, over the past several weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have decided to make matters even worse and have actively pursued a “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Under this approach, which was formally instituted in April 2018, thousands of children, including infants and toddlers, have been forcibly separated from their families while attempting to cross into the United States as asylum seekers. The arriving children have been ripped away from their parents or legal guardians by U.S. border officials and kept in cages until they are released into temporary foster care or to adult sponsors. There is even evidence that some parents and guardians have been deported back to their homes while their children remain in government custody.
As reports have shown, these practices are intentionally designed to deter migrants and asylum seekers from looking for refuge in the United States. Activists, rights groups, UN Officials, and politicians across the world have rightly been quick to condemn the U.S. policy as cruel and unlawful.
In the Canadian press, the response to the U.S. government’s family separation program has similarly been overwhelmingly critical. This outrage has carried over into the Canadian Parliament. This week, for example, parliamentarians pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to condemn the forcible separation of families and suspend Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the United States.
Under this bilateral immigration treaty, which came into effect in 2004, refugee applicants crossing the Canadian-U.S. border are“required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in,” whether Canada or the United States, unless they are eligible for one of four exceptions. Because the United States is no longer a safe haven for refugees, turning away asylum seekers who enter Canada through the U.S. land border puts these individuals at risk. According to government statistics, in 2017, 1,949 asylum seekers were turned back at Canadian border points under the STCA.
Going beyond criticism of the STCA, the debate surrounding American immigration policy has led many Canadians to examine their country’s record with greater scrutiny. This includes reckoning with Canada’s own problematic practices when it comes to migrants and asylum-seekers. For example, according to Hanna Gros, a Toronto-based refugee and immigration lawyer, the practice of child separation does, in fact, occur in Canada, although it is a measure of last resort, as articulated in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The children of foreign nationals, permanent residents, and asylum-seekers are also detained in holding centers without adequate justification and transparency.
Since Canada’s Liberal Party won the 2015 federal elections, 182 minors on average have been detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) each year. This is a significant reduction when compared to the average recorded between 2011 and 2015, when the Conservatives were in power. But, the most recent quarterly statistics from the CBSA for 2017-2018 demonstrate that the number of children kept in immigration detention has already surpassed numbers for the previous year.
Even these numbers may be inaccurate, however. A 2017 study from the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) found that the CBSA “detains both citizen and non-citizen children” alike. While only foreign nationals and permanent residents can be subject to immigration detention orders under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and associated regulations, “CBSA policy states that…children — regardless of their legal status — ‘may be permitted to remain with their detained parents in a CBSA immigration holding centre if it is in the child’s best interest…’”
A child who is a Canadian citizen can become a de facto detainee if they are in the care of a detained guardian or parent who is a permanent resident or foreign national. Citizen detainees are not legally recognized as detainees, but rather are considered “guests” of the detention facility. They are, as such, not covered by standard legal regulations and monitoring safeguards. This also means the exact number of children in Canadian immigration detention system are unknown.
Migrant detention and family separation is undoubtedly cruel and severely damages the health and psychological well-being of children in particular. With the world facing an ongoing refugee crisis, countries like Canada must do better to undo this scourge.