CBSA scrambling to convert part of new detention facility to host high-risk migrants

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OTTAWA — Canada’s border protection service will convert parts of its immigration detention centres into “high-risk” cells amid a scramble to find spots for jailed migrants as provinces start cutting the agency off from their prisons.

In an interview, Carl Desmarais, director general of enforcement for the Canada Border Services Agency, said the agency is converting part of its new immigration detention centre in Laval, Que., into a “high-risk” wing with 48 beds. He could not say how much the work would cost but noted it was being paid for within existing budgets.

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He also said the agency is planning — but has not yet started construction — to do the same with its two other detention centres in Toronto, Ont., and Surrey, B.C.

The sudden reconfiguration of the Laval detention centre comes as deals between CBSA and the governments of Alberta and British Columbia that allowed the agency to detain “high risk” migrants in provincial prisons expire, starting next week.

On its website, CBSA says it assigned such detainees — who are defined as posing a safety risk to the community, agency officers or other detainees — to provincial prisons when their risk “cannot be managed” in one of its immigration holding facilities.

Canada’s immigration detention system has come under intense criticism in recent years from human rights groups who accuse CBSA of incarcerating some immigrants, including children, for months with no end in sight in “abusive” prison conditions.

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Sustained pressure campaigns by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch led to British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario cancelling their prison deals with CBSA beginning in mid-2022.

That triggered a one-year sunset clause for the border agency to find a new place to keep detainees.

Alberta and B.C. subsequently granted CBSA an additional three months, but those agreements are set to expire by the end of September and October respectively.

Desmarais said that as of Aug. 25, the agency had 169 inmates in its three immigration detention centers — which usually host low- to medium-risk offenders — and 61 high-risk migrants in provincial prisons. Ten of the latter are detained in Alberta or B.C. and will have to be relocated, released or deported (depending on the progression of their individual immigration files) by the end of October.

Desmarais said once the work on the Laval facility is completed, the retrofitted space should allow the agency to manage the current number of high-risk detainees.

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The fact the CBSA already needs to convert a wing of its Laval facility, which opened less than a year ago, into high-risk cells illustrates the agency’s mad dash to adjust after provinces pulled out of the deal.

“We have to pivot really rapidly. The availability of our existing facilities is our primary response, and I think we can build capacity from that point on,” Desmarais said.

“You’re probably familiar with the time it takes for infrastructure projects to fruition,” he added.

As the deals with the provinces expire, Desmarais said there is no immediate concern that the agency will be unable to hold low-, medium- or high-risk detainees. But as Canada plans on increasing the number of immigrants to 500,000 by 2025, he said the agency is looking at how it can increase its detention capacity.

“I think there is an expectation that as immigration continues and population grows, there is a proportional increase in the need for immigration detention; it’s just simple math. I think eventually, we’ll have to look at our overall capacity,” he said.

“It is not a concern immediately, but we have to look beyond the next few years,” he added.

In July, CBSA’s head of intelligence and enforcement told the Post that critics have a “poor understanding” of the immigrant detention system and are relying an “old story” to call for its closure.

“I’m not sure people are giving us the recognition for the great work that we’ve done,” Aaron McCrorie, the agency’s vice-president of intelligence and enforcement, said at the time.

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