BRITISH COLUMBIA

Border agency lacks oversight year after detainee death in B.C.: advocates

02/12/2015 02:49 EST | Updated 04/14/2015 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - More than a year after a Mexican woman hanged herself in a B.C. immigration detention centre, advocacy groups say the Canada Border Services Agency still lacks crucial oversight to prevent such deaths.

Three human rights organizations say there is still no independent body overseeing CBSA actions, one of the key recommendations from a coroner's inquest into the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez.

She died in hospital in December 2013, days after being found hanging by security guards inside a shower stall in the holding facility below the Vancouver International Airport.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said it has been eight years since the Maher Arar inquiry looking into why the Syrian-born Canadian was sent to Syria to be tortured. That investigation also recommended independent accountability of the CBSA, he said.

"There can be no further delay. We're now pushing onto a decade in which people have had nowhere to turn and the time for change is now," he said.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and the Canadian Council for Refugees joined the BCCLA on a conference call Thursday to urge improved oversight of the agency.

Currently, detainees can complain about their treatment at their Immigration and Refugee Board detention hearings. But the board has no legal power over their treatment, only over whether they stay in detention.

"If an alleged criminal is abused by the police, we don't say, 'Well, you should complain to the judge at your trial,'" said Paterson. "We have an accountability mechanism over the police that look into those kinds of allegations."

A CBSA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency has agreed to implement safeguards at the airport holding centre, like having border agency staff on site daily, and offering mental health and suicide training to both private guards and staff.

But the CBSA has not yet created a new above-ground holding facility within a 30-minute drive of the airport, and it has not eliminated its use of private security guards, two other recommendations from the inquest into the woman's death.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, also criticized the CBSA's introduction of requirements for common washrooms in holding facilities, to be implemented first in Toronto.

"It could entail extra costs and more prison-like structures," she said, adding that common washrooms are especially problematic for gay, lesbian and transgender detainees.

Jimenez, 42, was arrested by CBSA officers in December 2013 after a database check showed she had previously been deported from Canada when her refugee claim was rejected.

Before being transferred to the airport holding centre, she was incarcerated in a women's prison, where she told fellow inmates that she feared she would be killed or tortured by an abusive ex-boyfriend if returned to Mexico.

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.