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CMHA calls for cancellation of plan to use federal prisons for immigration detention 

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is seriously alarmed by the federal government’s recent proposal to use federal penitentiaries for the non-criminal detention of migrants and refugee claimants, including those with mental health conditions. Using correctional facilities to detain migrants and refugee claimants experiencing mental health concerns is punitive, and inconsistent with international human rights standards. This measure would also have devastating effects on the mental health of already marginalized individuals, many of whom are fleeing persecution or recovering from traumatic experiences.  

For years, the Government of Canada has relied on provincial correctional facilities to house migrants and refugee claimants for non-criminal purposes. Every province across the country has now moved to end the federal government’s use of provincial jails for immigration detention. In light of the provinces’ retraction, the federal government, in its 2024 Budget, revealed a $325-million plan to expand federal capacity to detain migrants and refugee claimants, as well as expand immigration detention into federal prisons.  

The conditions in immigration detention can be devastating even for those without pre-existing mental conditions. A 2021 report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailed the “horrendous toll” that detention took on the well-being of immigration detainees, from a deterioration of functioning to suicidal ideation. The harm of immigration detention on mental health has been widely documented in medical literature in Canada and abroad, particularly where – as is the case in Canada – there is no maximum limit to its length, allowing detainees to be held with no end in sight. 

As the administrator of the immigration detention system, the Canada Border Services Agency is not subject to independent civilian oversight and has considerable discretion when it comes to detention decisions, including where it is that someone will be detained. The Canadian Mental Health Association is deeply concerned that migrants and refugee claimants with mental health, addictions and substance use health concerns, who may also be experiencing poverty, housing insecurity, and inadequate access to community supports, will be subject to unwarranted criminalization and additional trauma under this budgetary proposal. 

As the country’s largest community mental health organization, the Canadian Mental Health Association is adding our voice to the dozens of organizations across sectors, imploring the government to abandon its federal penitentiaries plan. The Senate standing committee charged with studying this plan has already recommended it be removed from the Budget Implementation Act. 

Like everyone living in Canada, migrants and refugee claimants with mental health needs deserve access to adequate supports and treatment, not incarceration and punishment. By strengthening access to alternatives to detention, investing in the social determinants of health, and eliminating the barriers in access to mental health and substance-use health services delivered in community – which will include addressing the exclusion of community mental health services from the Canada Health Act – we can realize a vision of Canada that upholds mental health as a human right for all.