Eight immigration detainees who were held behind bars for more than a year have been granted their freedom after the launch of a review into a system that critics charge has long favoured incarceration and has resulted in non-citizens being left to languish in jail.
Six of those long-term detainees are now out of jail, while the release of two others is imminent, a spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board told the Star. In addition, two former long-term detainees have been deported following the review of 27 long-term detention cases involving inmates locked up for at least a year.
The review was launched in the wake of a damning independent audit this summer that revealed a system that unfairly keeps people behind bars for months on end due to ill-informed adjudicators, decision-making based on inaccurate information, unchallenged faith in border enforcement officials and inadequate legal representation for detainees.
It also followed a Star investigation last year that found an immigration detention system that indefinitely warehouses non-citizens, away from public scrutiny and in conditions intended for a criminal population.
While those who were freed are still subject to constant monitoring and reporting requirements, the remaining 17 long-term detainees remain incarcerated and are entitled to periodic assessment for possible release. The board notes that the number of detainees who have been released is based on the latest information it had available.
Identities and personal details of the detainees granted their freedom were not available Tuesday, but the Star confirmed one of the eight is Ebrahim Toure, a failed refugee claimant who was profiled in the Star investigation and released in September after 5-1/2 years in jail. He was freed with a combined $26,000 in cash and performance bonds put forward by three sureties.
“It’s excellent that the board is taking the audit findings seriously. These are discretionary decisions and the system is supposed to catch these (unjustified) cases,” said University of Toronto professor Stephanie Silverman, an expert on immigration detention practises.
“The system is imperfect and decision-makers need more training in not just the reasons for detention but the reasons for release. Long-term detention has physical and mental consequences on detainees. Decision-makers need to take harm into balance in their decision-making.”
Long-term immigration detainees are entitled to a review every 30 days before an adjudicator to determine if they should be released or kept behind bars. Although decision-makers are randomly assigned to cases, inmates can only be heard by a pool of adjudicators who work in one of the three regional offices — Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia — based on the detainees’ locations.
Detainees are usually failed refugee claimants or immigrants whose permanent resident status has been revoked. They are held pending deportation because officials consider them a flight risk, a danger to the public, or if their identity can’t be confirmed. Others are inadmissible to Canada for security reasons, violation of human rights, crimes against humanity or for serious criminality or organized criminality.
The number of immigration detainees varies by the day but as of September, 50 had been held for more than a year; 57 between six and 12 months; 183 between three and six months; and 2,157 for under 90 days.
Under the review, the refugee board said decision-makers are instructed to “actively” investigate the specific barriers to release the detainees, explore potential alternatives to detention and develop a viable plan for their release.
“We have seen early success with the program, where all parties understand what is required for release and are ensuring that reasonable and timely efforts are being taken,” said the board’s spokesperson Anna Pape.
While advocates are pleased the board has made an effort to bring accountability to detention decisions, they said the fact just eight out of the 27 long-term detainees had been ordered released shows the system is flawed.
Hanna Gros of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program said these reviews are an important first step.
“Immigration detainees are incarcerated the same way as people in the criminal justice system. We are depriving people of their liberty. It’s one of the most invasive acts taken against private individuals,” said Gros. “We can’t be wrong about these decisions.”
Toronto lawyer Jared Will, who represented Toure, said more robust legal safeguards are needed to justify prolonged immigration detention in the long run.
“We need stricter rules about the time duration an individual can be detained and about the burden of proof and procedural standards for justification of the detention,” Will said. “There is too much margin of error in their discretion now.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung
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