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In June 2018, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) announced Canada’s ‘Alternatives to Detention Program’ (ATD). The program aims to reduce the large numbers of refugees and migrants held in extended periods of inhumane detention following their entry into Canada. Between February 2017 and December 2022, 81,418 individuals sought refugee claimant status when crossing the U.S.-Canada border without documents requiring a traditional entrance into Canada, such as an employment sponsorship, student visa, or the Express Entry Program

A person can receive refugee status if the CBSA determines the claimant meets the U.N.’s definition of a convention refugee. Convention refugees are individuals who have a “well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Memberships can include sexual orientation, gender identity, being a woman, and HIV status. 

Although Canada markets itself as a diverse, welcoming, and inclusive safe haven for refugees, the reality for those fleeing violence is navigating an immigration system with no definite length of detainment, cruel treatment, lack of mental health support, and a systemic history of racism. The ATD program promised to create “a better, fairer immigration detention system that supports the humane and dignified treatment of individuals while protecting public safety.” However, the lived experiences of many refugees have been an extension of Canada’s prison network into their private spaces and communities – reflecting Canada’s marred legacy of imperialism and the unjust criminalization of racialized and oppressed peoples.

The Horrors of Detainment 

Once an asylum seeker enters Canada, they are immediately arrested and begin a highly drawn-out process of waiting to have their asylum claim approved by the Refugee Protection Division (RPD) of CBSA. Up until recently, this meant being held in one of Canada’s three CBSA Immigration Holding Centers or provincial jails until their case settles. In Canada, the average length of detainment is currently 12.6 days; however, 82 individuals were in jail for over 99 days between 2022-2023. Canada is one of the only Global North countries that places no definite length of stay on detainment, which negatively affects refugees’ mental, emotional, and physical health. After a relatively short period of detention, many migrants suffer from ongoing insecurity, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, memory disturbances, and alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

The Case of Lucía Vega Jiménez

One of the most horrific examples of refugee treatment by the CBSA is the case of Lucía Vega Jiménez, who committed suicide on December 20, 2013, while in immigration detention. Jiménez was a Mexican national working as a cleaner in Vancouver without proper documentation. Jiménez was sending most of her earnings back to her family in Mexico. Jimenéz was detained by Transportation Authority Police Service (TAPS) at a Skytrain station in Vancouver for failure to pay the train fare. TAPS subsequently contacted the CBSA and Jiménez was detained. She was not informed of the right to counsel before a CBSA officer interrogated her, and in subsequent meetings, she was offered an interpreter only over speakerphone.

Jiménez attempted to meet with the head mental health coordinator after a nurse reported she was showing signs of depression and anxiety. Due to a clerical error, she did not get an appointment, and one of her detention hearings was stopped prematurely by the CBSA due to her sobbing uncontrollably. A lawyer involved in the investigation into Jiménez’s death stated the CBSA “[did not] ask or care about whether or not she was receiving treatment.” The CBSA concealed the news of Jiménez’s death for over a month, and the case only gained notoriety through the spread of information within Vancouver’s Mexican community. 

There is also a legacy of inherent racism within the Canadian immigration system that disproportionately affects the treatment of individuals who migrate from racialized countries. A perfect example of this continued difference is Canada’s treatment of migrants from Ukraine compared to migrants like Jiménez. When Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, Canada acted quickly to create the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) which allowed nearly 170,000 Ukrainian refugees to migrate to Canada. These migrants had traditional immigration fees waived, the right to a three-year work permit, and immediate settlement into homes in Canada. In comparison, Canada accepted only around 30,000 Afghan nationals in the same time frame, despite high levels of violence and persecution. The ease and efficiency of the asylum claimant process for Ukranians should be a right granted to all refugees – not just those from European countries.

The ‘Alternatives to Detention’ Program 

Immigration detainment is supposed to be a short-term process that results in either deportation or resettlement, making Canada’s policy of indefinite detention an extremely punishing process. Following increased media attention, multiple deaths, and Canada’s partnership with the UNHCR Global Detention Strategy, the CBSA announced the National Immigration Detention Framework (NIDF) in 2016 with an investment of $138 million over five years. One of the pillars of the NIDF is the ATD program, which hoped that migrant detention was the CBSA’s last resort. The program depends on communication technology, using voice reporting (V.M.) software facilitated through government-issued cell phones and electronic monitoring (E.M.) in the form of ankle monitors. There is a human element to the ATD program, facilitated by one of three CBSA partners: the Salvation Army, the Toronto Bail Project, and the John Howard Society of Canada. These partners provide housing and referrals to mental health, addiction, employment, and childcare support for asylum seekers as they await a decision on their case. 

Although the ATD program represents the possibility of a more humane Canadian immigration system, there are still valid concerns about the ATD program. These concerns specifically include the mental health of migrants, privacy rights, and the risk of physical harm from using ankle monitors. The V.R. system uses biometric voiceprint technology to recognize individual migrants and requires the claimant to report to the CBSA at particular intervals utilizing a pre-determined phrase. The E.M. program requires released migrants to wear an ankle monitor to collect location data 24/7 through GPS, track the migrant’s whereabouts, and enforce restrictions on when an individual can leave their residence. Although the ATD program appears to be a positive step in the immigration process, there is good reason to criticize the technology utilized and for the public to keep the CBSA accountable under one of the NIDF’s pillars of transparency. 

Primarily, this surveillance technology represents the extension of Canada’s carceral archipelago. This term, coined by social theorist Michael Focault, describes the extension of a state’s prison practices through surveillance into homes, schools, and public spaces. By extending the processes of the criminal system to migrants and asylum seekers through the technology of the ATD program, Canada is continuing the global norm of criminalizing migrants and extending its prison network into the homes and personal lives of migrants. The ATD program essentially infuses detention and its effects into a migrant’s every movement and intimate moment.

The Effects of the ATD Program on Migrants’ Well-Being

Making sure that the monitors are charged and can function becomes the complete responsibility of the migrant. An issue as simple as a dead battery or lost GPS connection can mean rearrest and redetention, creating unimaginable levels of stress for those wearing them. For context, the United States implemented a similar ATD program in 2004 that included V.R. and E.M. technologies. Currently, the U.S. has 31,069 individuals in their ATD program, which has been operating for nearly twenty years. Canada’s current maximum capacity for the ATD program is around 11,000, but it was in effect for four years. The Cardoza School of Law of Yeshiva University found that 90% of survey participants in the U.S. endured harm to their physical health as a result of E.M., with the most common symptoms being numbness and inflammation, and a staggering one in five participants experiencing electric shocks from the monitor. 88% of participants reported decreased mental well-being and an alarming 12% reported thinking of suicide. Almost every participant (97%) reported social isolation and stigma resulting from having to wear an ankle monitor, with one interviewee explaining that “the ankle shackle is a modern-day scarlet letter.” 

Alarmingly, over two-thirds of the participants in this study showed that they and their families faced extreme financial hardship due to the stigma of trying to find employment while wearing an ankle monitor. V.R. technology can offer a slightly less physically invasive and stigmatizing way of self-reporting. Still, critics have noted that “even the best voice recognition technology is nowhere near 100% accurate,” inviting technical errors that could jeopardize a migrant’s status in the country. Instead of being a humane alternative to detention, the ATD program and E.M. technology are simply an extension of indefinite detainment to a migrant’s personal life, adding to the traumatic circumstances they have previously experienced.

Canada’s Role in the Migrant Crisis: Past and Future

Canada, as a Western imperialist state, is partially responsible for creating the conditions that cause refugees to flee their homeland in search of a safe haven. The Canadian government must adjust its immigration policies and treatment of migrants accordingly. Following the exit of European states from their colonies and the division and economic instability left in their wake, formerly colonized nations faced disproportionate levels of violence, climate emergencies, and poverty. These issues create displacement and refugees, as individuals face limited or no economic opportunities, social strife, and persecution based on their identity. The migrant crisis worsens by the day, as the UNHCR predicts that 117.2 million people will be forcibly displaced or stateless in 2023. Justin Trudeau claims that “everyone has the right to seek safety” and that Canada will “continue to step up to provide [a] safe haven for people fleeing for their safety.” Yet, the lived experience of refugees and the expansion of the carceral archipelago through the ATD program show that these statements are just platitudes – an undeserved pat on the back for a government that continues to harm those seeking shelter.

If Canada wants to be the inclusive safe haven it claims to be, we must completely reimagine and restructure our treatment of migrants rather than trying to reinvent a broken wheel. Refugee rights organizations such as the Canadian Council for Refugees stress the importance of not criminalizing those escaping danger. It shows a lack of empathy towards refugees and migrant communities in Canada plagued by mental health crises. Furthermore, criminalization policies are completely illogical because letting migrants settle into Canadian communities does not increase crime rates and boosts economic prosperity for all. 

One possible alternative to the current system is establishing refugee shelters as an alternative to any form of detention (E.M./V.R. or otherwise). Refugee shelters can prioritize care-based treatment while migrants receive aid in navigating the legal system. This idea is not an obscure pipe dream. Toronto has refugee centres employing highly skilled staff to work with vulnerable newcomers and assist with all aspects of their transition into Canada. By prioritizing the ATD program over releasing refugees from detainment, the Canadian government implicitly tells us that the problem lies with the migrants. Yet, the issue lies in detention. As a wealthy Global North country, Canada has a unique opportunity and responsibility to become a world leader in the truly empathetic and humane treatment of refugees. We cannot lose sight of this goal and, instead, criticize the use of technological detention.

Emily Hellam

"Emily was born in Toronto but grew up in Bermuda, Malta, and Indonesia. She is currently in the fourth year of her undergraduate degree in International Relations from UBC, and works at the university...