Every day at 117 land ports of entry, 13 international airports and 27 rail sites, officers of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) deal with more than a quarter of a million travellers seeking to come into this country - Canadians returning home, Americans and others coming here to do business, visitors and tourists from around the world, new immigrants following the correct procedure to make Canada their new home, refugees fleeing from abuse and hopelessness, and others.
CBSA carries a serious and difficult responsibility under the law - to protect the integrity of Canada's borders and to keep Canadians safe, while also facilitating the free and legitimate movement of both people and trade.
The vast majority of border encounters are brief and routine. But a few present serious problems - especially when an individual wanting to enter or remain in Canada has not met the legal requirements set by Parliament to do so and cannot be identified with certainty, is a flight risk or threatens the safety of Canadians. In these limited circumstances, CBSA officers are empowered to detain that person until the defects in their status are corrected or security issues are resolved.
It is probably not surprising that there are an average of 400 individuals detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act at any given time.
Given the huge volume of people seeking entry to Canada virtually all the time, it is probably not surprising that there are an average of 400 individuals detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act at any given time. These make up less than 0.01 per cent of travellers to Canada per year. So what is the best way to handle their situations?
First, CBSA is required by law to consider all reasonable alternatives before detention. Detention is always a last resort. In the majority of cases, individuals are detained for only a very short time.
Secondly, every decision to detain an individual is subject to immediate and regular legal reviews by a duly appointed and properly trained member of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The IRB is an independent tribunal, focused on immigration law. In reviewing detention cases, the IRB has the full authority to release the individual, identify future conditions for release or maintain the detention.
In my first few months as the minister responsible for CBSA, I have certainly heard the concerns about immigration detention and have studied them with care. I've met with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the BC Civil Liberties Association and others. While the UNHCR recognizes Canada's refugee system as among the best in the world, the government is anxious to address weaknesses and do better.
Our objectives are:
- To increase the availability of effective alternatives to detention and thus reduce the overall number of cases in which detention is the only technique that can be used to deal with difficult problems of identification, flight risk or danger to the public;
- To reduce the use of provincial jails for immigration detention by making safe, higher quality, federally-operated facilities - specifically designed for immigration purposes - more readily accessible, thus avoiding as much as we can the intermingling of immigration/refugee cases with criminal elements;
- To try to avoid housing children in detention facilities, as much as humanly possible;
- To enhance the health, mental health and other human services available to those detained;
- To maintain open access to detention facilities for agencies such as the UNHCR, the Canadian Red Cross, legal and spiritual advisers and others who provide support and counselling; and
- To achieve greater transparency, including effective independent scrutiny and review of all CBSA operations and proper responses to any specific complaints about officers or facilities.
In my discussions with CBSA's leadership, I am finding a genuine desire to move forward in these better directions. To do so, the ideological limitations of the past 10 years are being left behind, but we'll have to find incremental funding for necessary capital improvements and better services.
Work is underway to get these changes - real changes - launched. I hope to make specific announcements in the near future.
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