OTTAWA — A group of doctors, lawyers, legal scholars and human-rights organizations is calling on the federal government to halt the rollout of a new policy that will see border officers outfitted in defensive gear when dealing with refugees in detention.
The group is making a third entreaty to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale urging him to cancel the policy, which is due to take effect first at a migrant holding centre in Toronto on Monday.
Requiring Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers to wear defensive gear while working with detained migrants goes against international standards that say migrants in detention should not be kept in prison-like conditions, says Anthony Navaneelan, a lawyer with the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.
"We have a very vulnerable population in these holding centres. They include children, they include families and they include refugee claimants — people who are fleeing situations of war and trauma," he said.
"We don't want the only face they see when they come to Canada to be a border agent who is carrying what is essentially is either police tackle gear or military gear."
The CBSA adopted the new uniform policy last year after moving what it deems "higher-risk immigration detainees'' from provincial jails, where they were being held for security purposes, into the agency's own custody. It has holding centres at the Vancouver airport; in western Toronto; and in Laval, north of Montreal. The one in Toronto is the largest, with a 195-person capacity.
The mandatory new equipment includes batons, pepper spray, handcuffs and bulletproof vests.
The agency decided all officers working in these centres must be outfitted in protective and defensive equipment to ensure a "common operational approach" especially in light of the newly transferred migrants previously held in jails, according to a briefing note obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information law.
The new policy sparked alarm among people and organizations that work with and on behalf of refugees, including a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, lawyers and legal experts, human-rights organizations like Amnesty International as well as Francois Crepeau, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
They have sent two letters in the last year to Goodale voicing their concerns over a perceived "criminalization" of asylum seekers, but have so far not received responses.
This week, they sent a third letter, urging attention to their concerns.
Senior staff in Goodale's office are planning a meeting with the group in the near future, Goodale's spokesman Scott Bardsley said Friday.
However, he took issue with a claim in one of their letters that the CBSA is "making the (immigration holding centre) environment more akin to jail conditions."
"That is not correct," Bardsley said.
"Renovations to IHCs will minimize the institutional look of facilities — removing bars on windows and barbed-wire fencing, and increasing access to recreational space indoors and outdoors. IHCs are not comparable to maximum-security correctional facilities, which include armed guard towers inside the building."
The Liberal government has been working to improve the immigration-detention system over the last few years, Bardsley added, including with a directive aimed at keeping children out as much as possible and keeping families together, expanded alternatives to detention and better mental- and medical-health services for migrants.
Fewer people are being detained, he said.
Last year, there was a daily average of 333 people in immigrant detention, down from 539 people five years earlier — even as the number of asylum-seekers has spiked in Canada over the last two years, Bardsley noted.
Navaneelan says he understands the defensive gear may be necessary to have on hand in the detention centres for security reasons, but suggests the equipment could be kept in lockers unless it's needed, rather than being used at all times.
"Those people who are detained for immigration purposes, they are not being detained for any punitive or criminal purpose. They're being detained for an administrative purpose," he said.
"It's really important that we convey to them, both in their experience and in how the public sees them, that these people are not being punished, they've committed no crime."
—Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter.