OTTAWA — The head of Canada's human rights commission has added her voice to those calling for greater oversight of the federal border agency after two deaths of immigrant detainees in the span of a week.
Marie-Claude Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, says in a statement that asking for refugee status is not a crime.
Marie-Claude Landry wants a watchdog for the Canada Border Services Agency. (Photo: Darren Calabrese/CP)
The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.
In 2013-14, it detained 10,088 immigrants — almost one-fifth of them refugee claimants — in a variety of facilities, including federal holding centres and provincial and municipal jails.
On March 7, the border services agency was notified by the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services that an individual in immigration detention at the Toronto East Detention Centre had died.
Six days later, the border agency was advised by the Ontario ministry that a person detained at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex had died.
Landry says in-custody deaths shine a light on thousands of undocumented people "arbitrarily detained" by the border agency because they requested asylum.
The human rights commission acknowledges that some of the migrants are held because of criminal activity and that security considerations are essential, Landry's statement says.
"Asking Canada for refugee status is not a crime, yet these migrants and their families, including women and children, are being treated like criminals..."
"However, in a free and democratic society, the human rights of every person on Canadian soil must be respected," says the statement, issued Friday.
"Asking Canada for refugee status is not a crime, yet these migrants and their families, including women and children, are being treated like criminals and held in detention centres for extended periods, without the ability to assert their human rights. Many have mental health issues."
This type of detention should be brought to an end, or used only as a last resort, Landry said.
The human rights commission echoes the concerns of several rights and refugee groups who have called for independent investigation of the recent deaths and supports the creation of an oversight body for the border agency, she added.
The Liberal government said Tuesday it was looking for ways to improve scrutiny of the agency.
The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government was examining how best to provide the border agency "with appropriate review mechanisms."
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