by Carmen Cheung and Samer Muscati
In early January, Mohamed, a 16-year-old Syrian, arrived in Canada, alone. His parents had made a risky decision: They sent him to Canada in the hope of finding safety after learning that the country was accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees. A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at Toronto’s main airport, personally greeting the first planeload of refugees. Mohamed’s reception by Canadian officials was a little different: The Canada Border Services Agency immediately apprehended and delivered him to the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, where he was placed in isolation for three weeks.
Mohamed is an unaccompanied minor fleeing a brutal war and requesting asylum in our country. Canada responded by forcing him into a small room and shutting the door. He was allowed out for less than an hour each day to play basketball alone in the snow. For those three weeks, he lived in near-complete social isolation, with only a television to keep him company. He had committed no crime by asking for refugee protection and he posed no danger. But rather than apologize for this abuse, the CBSA is now seeking to deport him.
Solitary confinement is generally defined as physical and social isolation for 22 or more hours per day. For adults, it is considered prolonged if it exceeds 15 days and is considered indefinite if the detainee has no clear sense of when their isolation might end. Prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement results in serious psychological harm and is regarded internationally as cruel and unusual treatment amounting to torture when inflicted on adults.
For minors, the negative effects of solitary confinement are amplified. The human brain undergoes significant changes in adolescence and continues to develop into early adulthood. Since the 1940s, scientists have recognized that sensory deprivation and social isolation have a profound impact on brain development. Developmental experts also believe that time is experienced differently by adolescents, such that a few days in solitary confinement may feel like weeks.
It is therefore unsurprising that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that subjecting juveniles to solitary confinement for any length of time constitutes a violation of the Convention against Torture. Likewise, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that solitary confinement should not be used for anyone under 18 years of age for any period of time. This prohibition applies regardless of circumstance; there is no disciplinary or administrative objective that can justify placing a child in solitary confinement.
Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in U.S. federal prisons. That same day, Mohamed was in his third week of isolation in an immigration facility in Toronto. As an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker, Mohamed should never have been detained in the first place. The fact that he was held in isolation for three long weeks is a travesty and a clear violation of international norms.
Yet this is a practice that is permitted in Canada because there are no statutory prohibitions against the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. It is time to end the practice of locking children up alone, regardless of whether it is in a prison or in an immigration facility. Although a previous government permitted it, the current government can end it.
Carmen Cheung is executive director of the Global Justice Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Samer Muscati is director of the International Human Rights Program at U of T’s Faculty of Law.