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Lack of detention space could force CBSA to release detainees, internal memo warns


The Canada Border Services Agency is scrambling to find space to hold high-risk detainees that are set to be transferred from provincial jails in June.

There are delays in retrofitting CBSA detention centres and training staff which may force the agency to release foreign nationals deemed a flight risk or a threat to public safety, or both.

The warning is spelled out in an internal memo sent out by the National Detention Contingency Task Force on March 20. In the document, obtained by CTV News, the task force explains how delays in expanding the CBSA’s immigration holding centres (IHC) combined with the termination of contracts limit its ability to detain dangerous persons.

In June, Quebec and Ontario will join seven other provinces and stop housing high risk detainees facing deportation. Newfoundland and Labrador has also announced that it will terminate its agreement with CBSA next year.

Infrastructure improvements to the Laval Immigration Holding Centre will not be complete until late 2024. The memo states this “will create a capacity gap in the CBSA’s detention capabilities, compromising the CBSA’s immigration enforcement continuum and increasing public safety and program integrity risks.”

To mitigate the risks of the temporary loss of detention capacity, the task force says it will evaluate each detainee case and limit detention only to individuals posing the highest public safety risk and release others.

In its memo, the agency recognizes its contingency plan “may result in higher rates of non-compliance.”

This internal memo, obtained by CTV News, warns of a potential 'capacity gap in the CBSA’s detention capabilities.'

In 2023, a total of 5,248 persons were detained by the CBSA throughout the year. They were jailed for an average of approximately 17 days. Foreign nationals are detained after the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada determines they are a flight risk or a danger to the public or themselves. Sometimes they are detained if there are questions about their identity.

Approximately 16 per cent of detainees are considered high risk and held in provincial jails. It can take months for them to be deported.

Mark Weber, the president of the Customs and Immigration Union, says the three existing CBSA detention centres in Toronto, Laval, QC and Surrey, B.C do not have adequate security infrastructure.

The facilities have shared sleeping quarters and open spaces and do not have separate individual cells that can be locked.

Weber says he’s baffled that the federal government appears unprepared for this. Alberta gave notice it was going to stop taking immigration detainees in 2020, and provinces need to provide at least one year’s notice before canceling their contracts.

A previous CBSA document outlining priorities for then-newly appointed public safety minister Dominic Leblanc last year projected that capacity to house approximately 150 to 200 higher risk individuals would be required by fall 2024.

The sleeping quarters at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre are seen in this undated image. (Image source: Canada Border Services Agency)

The leaked memo states that, ahead of the June termination dates, “IHC populations will need to be significantly decreased by May 2024

Weber says, to his knowledge, moving high risk detainees to IHCs can’t happen unless space is made by releasing lower risk individuals. Some detainees may need to be released with conditions or ankle monitors to accommodate the transfers.

“There is a small subset of people that you simply can’t release into the public. It’s really concerning to see it be this serious so late in the game, and so little in place to be ready for it,” said Weber.

An official count of CBSA detentions on April 12 shows that there were 193 detainees in IHCs and 42 behind bars in provincial jails. All but one high risk individual was held in Quebec and Ontario.

A CBSA source provided CTV News with profiles of 30 detainees. The individuals are from various countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. They have been convicted of crimes such as assault with a weapon, assaulting a peace officer, manslaughter, sexual assault and drug trafficking. Of the sample, seven individuals were assessed as “dangerous.”

It’s unclear from the documentation where the detainees are located.

Warren Creates is an immigration lawyer with Perley-Robertson, Hill and McDougall in Ottawa. (Judy Trinh / CTV News)

After seeing the profiles, veteran Ottawa immigration lawyer Warren Creates says he would be concerned if any of the convicted migrants are released to make room for people deemed a bigger threat.

“If one person who is released on terms and conditions and commits new crimes or goes AWOL or can’t be found by CBSA, that’s one too many,” said Creates, who has been practicing immigration law for 38 years.

Although migrant detainees account for 0.02 per cent of all foreign entries into Canada, Creates says the risk of releasing existing detainees is like a “locomotive bearing down on communities.”

“The minister will have to answer some questions to convince the Canadian people that the government is doing everything they can and do it quickly,” Create said.

“The integrity of the system could be questioned.”

In the latest federal budget, $325 million has been set to upgrade CBSA detention facilities. The Liberal government is also seeking to change the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow detainees to be placed in federal prisons, but implementing such measures could take months.

Other than providing statistics, CBSA did not provide comment for this story when asked by CTV News.

Public Safety Minister Dominic Leblanc, who took over the role last July after a cabinet shuffle, also declined requests for an interview. Top Stories

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