Advocates urge Canadian government not to go further down the route of privatising immigration detention
by Bilbo Poynter
Dramatic changes to Canada’s immigration laws expected to come into effect in December will mean that asylum seekers face more restrictions and have less time to make a claim. Advocates fear this will lead to more detentions and further opportunities for private prison operators to cash in.
Immigration detention is a growth industry around the world, and some of the biggest private security and prison firms are the beneficiaries. In Canada, increased government use of by immigration detention has refugee lawyers and advocates worried, particularly after the passage of the tough new immigration laws in June.
Serco is one of the biggest players in the immigration detention business worldwide. The company, which provides public services to governments around the world, including Canada – where it runs everything from the Ontario driver’s education and licencing program to military bases in Newfoundland and Labrador – has been lobbying Ottawa on the subject of immigration service delivery.
“The government has indicated that they expect to make increased use of detention for refugee claimants,” said Janet Cleveland, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies the effects of detention on asylum seekers.
“We have a very strong position saying people should not be incarcerated when they’re not criminals,” said Cleveland, adding that this approach should be extended to asylum seekers entering the country. “Incarceration is absolutely unjustified because there’s essentially no flight risk.”
Asylum seekers hope to be accepted as refugees, added Cleveland.
The changes to Canadian law come after nearly two years of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government signalling its intention to crack down on human smuggling and after months of the immigration minister, Jason Kenney, warning of “bogus refugees” taking advantage of Canadian generosity.
Detention is mandatory in cases in which the identity of the claimant cannot be established, human smuggling is suspected or if the claimant arrived in the country by “irregular arrival”. According to some critics, these criteria could include all asylum seekers coming to Canada.
Canadian border officials can order asylum seekers held for an initial two-week period, then for as much as six months before review. The Harper government’s original plan called for one year’s detention, before it pulled back in the face of a chorus of opposition from civil groups.
“Is that coming out of the need to detain people who are seeking refuge in Canada, or is that being driven by companies… who stand to profit tremendously [from] incarcerating people?” said Justin Piché, an assistant professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa who is also a prison-policy blogger.
In June, during a parliamentary debate on the new legislation, Kenney insisted that “no immigrant is imprisoned in immigration detention centres. All immigrants are free to leave Canada at any time. It is not imprisonment.” But a 2012 Global Detention Project report on Canada lists it as one of the only western countries that actively and increasingly detains asylum seekers in correctional facilities, including maximum-security prisons, in apparent contravention of international human rights norms.
The ability to claim asylum is not a criminal offence. As an immigration lawyer, Douglas Cannon, put it when speaking to the Times Colonist newspaper: “It’s a right.”
The Guardian made repeated requests to speak with Kenney but the minister was unavailable to comment.
‘The Heritage Inn’
Officially, Canada currently has three immigration holding centres (IHCs): one in Laval, near Montreal; one at Vancouver International Airport; and one in Toronto, which used to be an airport motel and is sometimes referred to by its past name, the Heritage Inn. A fourth facility, which was for high-security detainees in Kingston, Ontario, has been closed.
The multinational security firm G4S, which was recently in the spotlight for understaffing security at the London Olympic Games, has the contract to provide security at the IHC in Toronto, while the Corbel Management Corporation has had the contract to manage that facility since 2003. Government records show that contract to have been worth more than $19m between 2004 and 2008. The Toronto IHC recently underwent an expansion, to increase its capacity from 120 to 195 beds. The renovations were completed in September, according to a spokesperson for the CBSA.
Perhaps the most curious lobbying effort around immigration detention comes from BD Hamilton and Associates, a boutique real-estate firm that shares its address with a private surgical clinic in Toronto. According to its registration, the company was seeking to “work with the Government of Canada to build a refugee detention centre in Toronto”. Bridget Hamilton, who is listed as the principal of the company, was a director of the Corbel Management Corporation until 2009. Her husband, Dr James Hamilton, is president and medical director of the clinic.
“The proposal called for a P3 [public-private partnership] arrangement that was to be financed by Hamilton and Associates and potentially other Canadian registered/incorporated investors,” said Emily Wehbi, of the prominent lobbying firm National Public Relations, the registered lobbyist for BD Hamilton.
The government rejected Hamilton’s proposal in June, according to Wehbi, but records show the company is now seeking to “work with the Government of Canada on the escorted removals process” of deportees.
In March, Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, met Serco executives who flew in from the UK. Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, also attended the meeting.
“They’ve [Serco] never had the opportunity to speak with officials… about services that they deliver from an immigration and citizenship perspective,” said Dykstra, who was quick to point out that the meeting wasn’t about detention specifically but instead aimed to “broaden our horizons about the services they [Serco] have to offer, to see if there’s a way in which somewhere down-the-line they could assist the Canadian government.”
In September 2010, Kenney toured two Serco-run detention centres in Australia, as part of a fact-finding tour into Australia’s anti-human smuggling initiatives. He tweeted that he had “learned a lot”.
In April 2011, detainees at the Serco-run Villawood facility in Australia rioted in protest at the length of their detention. A month before, a protest that authorities labelled an attempted breakout by asylum seekers detained at Serco’s offshore Christmas Island facility had resulted in a number of buildings being burned to the ground and detainees being injured after police used bean-bag rounds and tear gas.
Serco declined requests to comment on this story.
Janet Cleveland believes it would be a mistake for Canada to go further in the direction of privatising immigration detention, by following the lead of Australia and the US. “My presumption is that the conditions would be far worse.” she said. “There would be less control, less oversight and so on.”
Justin Piché said: “By planning, by touring these different facilities, by having meetings with these different companies, it suggests that perhaps they [the Harper government] don’t expect this bill to deter anything, and what they’re in fact doing is creating a useful crisis in the form of mandatory detention that will be resolved by privatized detention facilities.”