Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice

Editors’ Introduction: Detention, Prison, and Knowledge Translation in Canada and Beyond

by Stephanie J. Silverman and Sharry Aiken


Immigration detention refers to the law, policy, and practice of incarcerating asylum seekers and other migrants to wait for a resolution in an irregularity of their immigration status. The medical literature is conclusive that even short periods of detention cause irreparable damage to the health of men, women, and children in Canada and abroad. Sometimes referred to as administrative detention, between 8,000 – 9,000 people enter Canadian immigration detention every year. While the majority of detainees are released with 48 hours, a substantial minority are held for upwards of 40 days. The “low-risk” detainees are incarcerated in dedicated facilities called immigration holding centres (IHCs), but 16 – 20%, or the so-called “high risk” population, are sent to provincial correctional centres where they live under the same restrictive regime as prisoners convicted of criminal offences, including wearing orange jumpsuits and becoming subject to regular strip searches. While the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) legalized detention, policy takes up and makes real the everyday rules and regulations of running the complex detention system: a complex web of internally-issued guidance, memos, regulations, and Ministerial Directives and Instructions whose development takes place mostly out of public sight. Immigration detention cost Canadian taxpayers about $171 million last fiscal year, and this does not include the costs of flying deportees to other countries.

These posts represent a collective effort to illuminate and analyze different aspects of this hybrid policy tool. The contributions point to new ways of understanding the place of detention in Canadian law, policy, and society. Springing from the De-Carceral Futures workshop that took place last May at Queen’s University, the contributions are ‘knowledge translation’ exchanges between a scholar and a student. In other words, the scholar invited the student to rewrite their research for a policy audience. The students attended a “How To” workshop organized by Trinity College research librarian Courtney Lundrigan in September 2019. The rest of this introduction is devoted to sketching the broad strokes of immigration detention policy in Canada.

The IRPA provides the framework legislation that sets out the principles for when a migrant can be detained on administrative grounds in Canada. Similar to American, Australian, and British detention laws, the IRPA neglected to prescribe an upper time limit for individual periods of detention. The IRPA also provides for the arrest and mandatory detention of a person who is named in an immigration security certificate if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a non-citizen is a danger to national security, safety of any person, or is unlikely to appear at a proceeding for removal (See IRPA s.81). These detentions are virtually immune to review by regular judges by virtue of being situated in administrative law. Instead, a member of the Immigration Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board will undertake a statutory review of the grounds of each detention after 48 hours’ incarceration, then one week, and then every 30 days until the detainee is released or removed from Canada. Since detainees are not guaranteed access to counsel, and legal aid is uneven across the country, the system raises access to justice concerns.

There are exceptions to the regular procedures, including detainees who lodge applications for a writ of habeas corpus to have their cases heard in the provincial superior courts (see Mujtaba and Silverman) or the “hard” cases of un-removable detainees but to whom Canada will not grant residency status (see Khalid and Aiken). But, overall, the ‘back-end’ Canadian system is focussed on incarcerating people with removal orders who have exhausted their legal rights to remain.

In May 2019, the Supreme Court rendered a decision on whether the IRPA-legislated scheme is as “complete, comprehensive and expert” and “broad and advantageous” as the constitutional right to habeas corpus. The 6 – 1 majority found that detainees should be able to seek habeas corpus as an alternative remedy, and thus restored pan-Canadian access to it.

Importantly for policy-makers, detention is incredibly costly, garners mixed results in achieving its stated goals, and yet is growing throughout the world. The Global Detention Project has identified over 1200 official sites of detention. The Canadian government is building a new IHC in Surrey, BC, to complement the renovations on its Laval and Toronto centres. The Canadian Government is also committed to implementing the National Immigration Detention Framework, a reform program intended to reduce detention but one that is also diffusing incarceration into the community through increasing reliance on coercive reporting conditions, electronic ankle shackles, and other techno-solutions (see Atar and Molnar). The policy shift on detention can be helpfully situated as one aspect of the penal expansion that is sweeping Canada (see Piché, Benslimane, and Speight) and reaching into cities through un-monitored cooperation efforts between the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and local police units (see Vargas Aguirre and Moffette). Overall, then, these posts signal the need to recalibrate domestic policies in a manner that eschews reliance on detention and imprisonment.


* The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of SSHRC, Queen’s University (Faculty of Law, Cultural Studies Program & Department of Philosophy), as well the Walls to Bridges Collective, and the John W. Graham Library at Trinity College.

A Policy Options podcast was recorded at our May 2019 workshop at Queen’s University, for which we gratefully acknowledge the participation, cooperation, and leadership of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP):


How to cite this blog post: Silverman, Stephanie J. and Sharry Aiken. 2020. “Editors’ Introduction: Detention, Prison, and Knowledge Translation in Canada and Beyond”. In Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice. Edited by Sharry Aiken and Stephanie J. Silverman. Accessed online at


Stephanie J. Silverman is a detention researcher with a PhD from the University of Oxford. Her book, The Detention Estate, will be published by McGill-Queens University Press in 2021. She is a founding partner at Thinking Forward, a human rights consultancy firm, and co-director of the De-Carceral Futures project. For three years, Dr. Silverman was the Bora Laskin National Fellow in Human Rights Research, and for six years she was on faculty at Trinity College, University of Toronto. This year she is a Research Associate at the Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, and on secondment at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.


Sharry Aiken is an Associate Professor at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Law. Sharry is a past president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, co-editor of the PKI Global Justice Journal, and former Editor-in-Chief of the journal Refuge. She co-organized the “Decarceral Futures” workshop convened in May 2019 at Queen’s University with Stephanie Silverman and Lisa Guenther.






Algorithms of Immigration Detention: Implications for Human Rights

by Ozlem Atar and Petra Molnar



Migration decision-making is a wide and discretionary field of law, policy, and governance. It is often opaque, with inadequate independent oversight. Unsurprisingly, enthusiasts of automated technologies are proferring services such as algorithmic decision-making and data collection as a partial solution to migration management issues, particularly immigration detention.

Yet, Artificial Intelligence (AI) hype will not resolve the many complexities in global migration, and may indeed exacerbate human rights infringements for an already vulnerable population. This is particularly true when vital decisions are made based on heavy reliance on biased algorithms and questionable data collection practices. Appropriate oversight and governance mechanisms are needed to ensure that automated decision-making technologies do not turn asylum seekers, refugees, and immigration applicants into trackable and controllable communities.


Are algorithms the new jailers?

We are witnessing the worldwide roll-out of “technosolutionism” as a meta-policy to address nuanced, individual migration cases. This type of experimentation is already occurring in contentious areas such as the incarceration of migrants. For example, in the U.S., the private data mining and analytics company, Palantir, is supplying the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency with technology to facilitate the arrests and potential deportations of undocumented migrants, leading to grave human rights abuses which have been widely criticized.

Canada is not immune to experimenting with new technologies in migration. Petra Molnar and Lex Gill’s co-authored 2018 report “Bots at the Gate” explores the human rights implications of Canada’s introduction of automated decision-making and AI in its immigration system. The report demonstrates that biased machines can fail to capture the complex nature of immigration applications and refugee claims and that these technological issues may lead to irreparable harm.

A related concern is the lack of independent oversight to monitor these decision-making processes, investigate violations of human rights, and correct mistakes. Consider the case of the British government wrongfully deporting over 7000 foreign students because a faulty algorithm decided they cheated on a language acquisition test. The government provided no means to appeal or return to the UK.


Emerging Case Study: “Voiceprinting” in Immigration Detention

One area where “technosolutionism” is layering ethical complications onto a contentious policy issue is in verifying the identity of a person talking on the phone and its use in carceral settings. This issue is important to these CARFMS posts because advocates of less detention support Canada’s use of “phone reporting” as an alternative to incarceration.

Yet, when is the line crossed from supporting an in-home phone call to verify respect for a curfew, to a coercive and non-consensual voiceprint collection practice? The Intercept reports that, in the criminal justice context, the US has been contracting with the prison telecommunications firm, Securus Technologies, to extract “voiceprints” from its prison population under coercion. Besides issues of consent in situations of unequal power hierarchies, how is this sensitive data safeguarded from hackers and other unauthorized parties?

The use of new technologies also raises issues of informed consent, particularly in the increasing reliance on biometric data. For example, in Jordan and Iraq, refugees now have their irises scanned in lieu of identification to receive their food rations. However, are they able to meaningfully opt out from having their data collected? Most refugees reported being uncomfortable with this collection but felt that they could not refuse to get scanned if they wanted to eat that week. Consent is not free if it is given under coercion, even if the coercive circumstances masquerade as efficiency and better service delivery.

Data collection and retention practices also need to be scrutinized. If collected information is shared with repressive governments from whom refugees are fleeing, the ramifications can be life-threatening. Or, if automated decision-making systems designed to predict a person’s sexual orientation are infiltrated by states targeting the LGBTQ community, discrimination and threats to life and liberty will likely occur. A facial recognition algorithm developed at Stanford University already tried to discern a person’s sexual orientation from photos. This use of technology has particular ramifications in the refugee and immigration context, where asylum applications based on sexual orientation grounds often rely on having to prove one’s persecution based on outdated tropes around non-heteronormative behaviour. These types of technological assessments could also be easily implemented into voiceprint extraction technologies, resulting in grave discrimination and serious human rights abuses.

Given the far-reaching impacts of these technologies, states have an obligation to ensure transparency around the present and future uses of voiceprint extraction and other new carceral technologies used in immigration detention, including privacy issues connected to data retention and sharing.



Currently, there is no global legal or policy framework to regulate the development and deployment of new technologies in migration management. This area is quickly becoming an out-of-sight laboratory for experimenting with the governance, transparency, and accountability of machines in society. This gap raises profound issues for the human rights of migrants.

As a much-needed next step, all stakeholders involved in migration management, including states, international organizations, private sector actors, civil society, and affected communities need to be involved in setting up governance mechanisms for the use of new technologies such as AI, automated decision-making, and biometric data collection. This should include the adoption of binding directives or laws that comply with internationally protected human rights obligations. In addition, private companies working in migration management must ensure that their technologies are rights-complying.

In particular, Canada can play a leading role in setting up international parameters for the use of migration management technologies that observes the rule of law, including free, prior, and informed consent, transparent data collection and retention procedures, and protecting fundamental human rights such as the right to privacy and freedom from discrimination.


How to cite this blog post: Atar, Özlem and Petra Molnar. 2020. “Algorithms of Immigration Detention: Implications for Human Rights”. In Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice. Edited by Sharry Aiken and Stephanie J. Silverman. Accessed online at


Özlem Atar is a PhD student in Queen’s University’s Cultural Studies Graduate Program. Her research focuses on migration justice and family narratives on undocumented migration from Central America and Mexico. She served as the Graduate Research Fellow for the De-Carceral Futures Workshop convened on May 9 and 20, 2019 at Queen’s Law School. 





Petra Molnar is the acting director of the International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto Faculty of Law and a Mozilla Open Web Fellow working with European Digital Rights (EDRi) on the human rights impacts of migration control technologies.






A Just Transition: Moving Away from Prison Construction in Canada

by Sarah Speight, Souheil Benslimane and Justin Piché


Canada is building new facilities to incarcerate people. Policy-makers at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels should push back against this costly, ill-advised, trend. Instead, they should redirect funding to collaborative transformative justice practices that save taxpayers’ money and strengthen local communities.

Imprisonment is an expensive, inhumane, and ineffective approach to preventing and responding to criminalized acts, yet several jurisdictions across are constructing new and bigger facilities for human caging. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, governments are scheduling a range of immigration holding centres, jail expansion projects, and brand-new prisons for priority construction. A common justification is the need to improve conditions of imprisonment and reduce crowding, alongside promises to provide more programming and care to people behind bars ‘closer to home’.  Yet, the notorious Toronto South Detention Centre (TSDC) and other recently-constructed jails indicate that a new building fails to prevent the same old problems of violence, preventable death, segregation, and crowding.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government has budgeted $1 million to expand the Labrador Correctional Facility. The government wants to ensure that women, including Indigenous people, protesting the hydro-electric project at Muskrat Falls, can “be jailed in a location closer to their families and loved ones”. At the same time, a $200 million facility is in the works to replace the province’s aging Her Majesty’s Penitentiary for men. Meanwhile, on Prince Edward Island, a $13 million, 34-bed facility is slated to be built on the grounds of the Provincial Correctional Centre. The ‘closer to home’ rhetoric echoes in Nova Scotia where provincial plans to replace Cape Breton Correctional Facility were justified through the “desire to keep [incarcerated people] in close proximity to their own communities”. Closer to home, but still in a cage.

Central Canada is planning new and bigger provincial jails as well. In Quebec, prison officials are contemplating the construction of a new prison for women on the grounds of the de-commissioned Maison Tanguay detention centre. In Ontario, new jails will go up in Thunder Bay and Ottawa, while the soon-to-be decommissioned Roy McMurty Youth Detention Centre in Brampton will become a 192-bed detention centre for women.

Further west, Manitoba’s incarcerators plan to replace the 61-bed Dauphin Correctional Centre with a 180-bed healing lodge, thereby tripling the capacity to cage people. Finally, to the north, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories also plan to build more cages. Nunavut’s 58-bed Baffin Island Correctional Facility will be replaced with a 112-bed healing lodge for $74 million, while the prison authorities in the Northwest Territories plan to build a $23.6 million dollar, multi-security level facility designed to cage women that includes a segregation unit. These facilities are meant to keep prisoners in custody within their home-territories, rather than shipping them elsewhere to serve their sentences.

It has become clear that building detention centres, jails, and prisons to keep incarcerated people in cages ‘close to home’ interests policy-makers across the levels of government. But this approach is misguided. Living in a cage close to home is far from being home. Instead of expanding human caging infrastructure, such a ‘closer to home’ goal can be easily, affordably, and safely accomplished by diverting and decarcerating people through community-based alternatives.

Divesting from prison building will free up billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Such funds could build safer and inclusive communities through attrition – which is to say a gradual reduction – of human caging in Canada via a “just transition”. Working class, racialized climate justice activists coined the term “just transition” to recognize that industries which are harmful to employees, the environment, and communities need to be transitioned out – providing new pathways for other employment, as well as dignified, productive, and sustainable alternatives to harmful industries.

In the case of criminalized acts, a just transition away from imprisonment would involve building capacity for transformative justice approaches. Hinging on the belief that no one is disposable, transformative justice involves both those who have caused harm and those who have experienced it in a collaborative approach to resolving conflict to meet the human needs arising from harm and to prevent future violence.

The policy issue of prison construction therefore touches on and impacts many aspects of everyday life and policymaking in Canada. The just transition for prisoners and detainees involves not only rejecting the party line that more and bigger prisons make Canada safer but accepting that collaborative transformative justice practices will save money and strengthen communities.


How to cite this blog post: Speight, Sarah, Souheil Benslimane and Justin Piché. 2020. “A just transition: Moving away from prison construction in Canada”. In Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice. Edited by Sharry Aiken and Stephanie J. Silverman. Accessed online at


Sarah Speight is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Ottawa. Her research Interests include prison writing, carceral expansion, and prison abolitionism.

Souheil Benslimane is an illegalized and criminalized migrant who is currently awaiting imminent deportation to Morocco. Souheil became involved in abolitionist as well as prisoner and migrant justice organizing as a member of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), a member of the Ottawa Sanctuary Network (OSN), and the Coordinator of the Jail Accountability and Information Line (JAIL). His first peer-reviewed article, co-authored with David Moffette, (Assistant Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa), is entitled “The Double Punishment of Criminal Inadmissibility for Immigrants” appeared in Volume 28 of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons in the summer of 2019.

Justin Piché is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology and Director of the Carceral Studies Research Collective at the University of Ottawa. He is also Co-editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons and a founding member of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.






Criminalisation et Immigration : Une Relation Problématique

by Martha Vargas Aguirre et David Moffette


On a toujours voulu nous empêcher

Chez les nantis de nous installer

Mais pour fuir la misère ou la guerre

Nous allons toujours vers les pays qui prospèrent

Jean-Paul Inisan, Migration planétaire


Ce fragment de poème de Jean-Paul Inisan fait écho aux voix de ceux et celles qui quittent leur famille, leur langue, leur vie entière à la recherche de nouvelles opportunités, d’une vie digne, ou simplement de la possibilité de vivre. Mais quelle est la réalité de ces « étrangers » dans ces « pays qui prospèrent », quels sont les contrôles auxquels ils sont soumis une fois que leurs pieds foulent le territoire rêvé ? Portant leurs désirs et leurs peines comme des bagages, ils arrivent aux « pays qui prospèrent » et sont confrontés à des processus bureaucratiques lourds et à des évaluations contraignantes, autant d’épreuves qu’ils doivent traverser dans l’espoir d’obtenir le feu vert pour y résider.

Ces pays, imaginés comme des « terres promises », sont souvent loin d’être les territoires accueillants dont rêvent les gens. Dans le but d’arrêter les « vagues » d’étrangers qui, en raison de leur statut ou de leur nationalité, ne sont pas considérés comme « désirables », ces pays mettent en place des systèmes de contrôle sévères et largement restrictifs pour certains types de migration. Dans ce contexte, l’utilisation du droit pénal comme outil supplémentaire de contrôle des non-citoyens s’est avérée un outil « efficace » mais très problématique. Ainsi, deux champs différents du droit (le droit de l’immigration et le droit pénal) – qui ont des procédures et des garanties juridiques différentes et qui sont théoriquement axés sur la régulation de deux groupes de personnes distinctes – sont pourtant appliqués conjointement lors de la régulation de l’entrée, de la présence, ou de l’expulsion de non-citoyens.

Ce croisement ou intersection entre le droit de l’immigration et le droit criminel a été largement discuté et critiqué. Dans un article à paraître cet automne dans la revue scientifique Criminologie, David Moffette explique comment cette rencontre prend forme et comment des arrêts récents de la Cour suprême du Canada ont permis certains progrès, même insuffisants, en faveur des droits de migrants criminalisés ou détenus. Moffette explique qu’au Canada, il existe quatre types de contextes dans lesquels le droit criminel et le droit de l’immigration se rejoignent pour contrôler les non-citoyens.

  • D’abord, certaines stratégies migratoires qui facilitent l’accès au pays ont été définies comme des infractions pénales (ex. l’utilisation de faux documents). Cette mesure n’est pas applicable aux demandeurs d’asile, cependant, puisque le droit international du refuge interdit de punir les réfugiés pour la façon dont ils entrent dans un pays. Il existe cependant certaines exceptions. La Loi sur l’immigration et la protection des réfugiés (LIPR) dispose qu’ils peuvent être sanctionnés et voir leur demandes de refuge refusées s’ils participent à l’organisation d’une opération qui facilite l’entrée irrégulière de personnes au Canada. Dans ce cadre, la demande d’asile de personnes fuyant la violence peut être refusée pour la simple raison d’avoir fourni une assistance quelconque pendant le voyage. Toutefois, la Cour suprême du Canada a décidé récemment que les demandeurs d’asile ne doivent pas être criminalisés si leur aide à l’entrée irrégulière est offerte pour des raisons humanitaires, d’assistance mutuelle entre réfugié, ou de soutien à un membre de leur famille. Mais ce changement est-il suffisant ? Ceux et celles qui n’ont pas le statut de demandeurs d’asile et qui, par désespoir, vendent tout ce qu’ils avaient, s’endettent auprès de passeurs ou achètent un faux passeport pour échapper à la précarité, ne mérite-t-ils pas eux aussi un traitement humanitaire ? Pourtant, ils risquent d’être criminalisés.
  • Ensuite, des non-citoyens reconnus coupables de certaines infractions criminelles peuvent être interdit de territoire et expulsés du Canada (une mesure qui peut également être appliquée aux résidents permanents dans certaines situations). Ainsi, des personnes qui ont vécu la majeure partie de leur vie au Canada (et qui, pour des diverses raisons, n’ont pas obtenu ou demandé la citoyenneté) peuvent être expulsées vers des pays avec lesquels elles n’ont aucun lien sauf d’y être nées. Comme cette expulsion se fait en vertu du droit de l’immigration (et pas du droit criminel), elle n’est pas considérée comme une véritable peine. En effet, la peine n’existe officiellement qu’en droit criminel. Mais Moffette explique très justement qu’au-delà du domaine de droit dans lequel se trouve cette mesure, la souffrance est indéniable et ressemble à celle causée par l’imposition d’une sanction pénale. On peut donc considérer l’expulsion, ajoutée après avoir purgé une première peine imposée pour l’infraction criminelle, comme une forme de double peine.
  • Le droit de l’immigration utilise aussi des pratiques communément employées comme peine en droit pénal, principalement la détention. La détention des non-citoyens est particulièrement problématique parce que contrairement aux détenus dans le domaine pénal, les non-citoyens enfermés en vertu de la LIPR ne reçoivent pas les mêmes garanties juridiques. Dans son texte, Moffette souligne que l’un des problèmes les plus graves est la durée indéterminée de la détention des non-citoyens au Canada. En effet, ceux et celles qui placent leur espoir dans des « pays qui prospèrent » peuvent être détenus pendant des semaines, des mois ou même des années dans un Centre de surveillance de l’immigration ou même dans des prisons provinciales, et ce de façon préventive. C’est comme si vouloir échapper à la pauvreté ou la guerre était un délit pour lequel ils devaient être emprisonnés. Bien que Moffette nous dise que grâce à un arrêt récent de la Cour suprême du Canada, les non-citoyens ont maintenant de meilleurs recours juridiques pour combattre les détentions préventives très longues (l’accès à l’habeas corpus), cela n’est pas suffisant. La situation vulnérable de ces personnes rend difficile l’accès à des avocats leur permettant de recourir à ce droit, qui de toute façon ne s’applique pas dans tous les cas. Les statistiques sur la durée moyenne de détention des non-citoyens parlent d’elles-mêmes.
  • Finalement, des policiers municipaux canadiens jouent aussi un rôle dans le contrôle de l’immigration même si ce n’est pas leur travail. En effet, ils ne sont pas tenus de vérifier le statut des personnes qu’ils rencontrent, le contrôle de la présence des non-citoyens étant le travail de l’Agence des services frontaliers du Canada. Toutefois, la police municipale contrôle activement cette information et la communique aux services d’immigration. Ainsi, pour une personne sans statut, contacter la police est un acte risqué, même dans des villes sanctuaires (ou ayant des politiques selon lesquelles les non-citoyens devraient avoir accès aux services municipaux quelque soit leur statut migratoire). La situation à Montréal et à Toronto est particulièrement préoccupante. Ces contrôles policiers aggravent les conditions précaires dans lesquelles vivent les personnes en situation irrégulière. Pour elles, parler à la police peut signifier la déportation. Moffette donne comme exemple l’expulsion d’une femme victime d’une agression sexuelle qui a eu lieu après avoir signalé son agression a la police. Les personnes sans statut sont ainsi parfois poussées à garder le silence sur les injustices et les violences qu’elles vivent ou voient parce, dans ce « pays qui prospère », la police n’est pas une source de protection pour elles.

Les politiques migratoires doivent êtres planifiées et conçues dans une visée de justice sociale et de mise en œuvre effective des droits humains. Il s’agit du seul moyen d’éviter que les personnes déplacées ne soient à nouveau victimes (d’expulsion, de déportation ou de la précarité de la vie dans la clandestinité). La gestion de l’immigration comme un problème de sécurité ou comme une question d’utilité est à l’origine des régulations répressives. Si les politiques migratoires continuent à être conçues comme des outils permettant de faire le tri des personnes en fonction des avantages qu’elles apporteraient à la société d’accueil, la justice sociale et les droits humains resteront toujours au second plan. Dans ce contexte, les avancées juridiques qui découlent des arrêts récents de la Cour suprême sont insuffisantes et il nous faut promouvoir un changement de perspective complet si nous voulons que les droits humains des personnes migrantes soient une priorité. 


How to cite this blog post: Vargas Aguirre, Martha and David Moffette. 2020. “Criminalisation et Immigration : Une Relation Problématique”. In Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice. Edited by Sharry Aiken and Stephanie J. Silverman. Accessed online at


Martha Alexandra Vargas Aguirre is a PhD student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. Her main research interests are south-south immigration, immigration regulation, racism, and criminal policy.





David Moffette is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. He studies questions related to the criminalization and securitization of immigration, borders, policing, and racism.







The Limits of Judicial Remedies to Policy Problems: Examining the Restoration of Habeas Corpus for Immigration Detainees in Canada

by Falak Mujtaba and Stephanie J. Silverman



In 2017 the Ontario Superior Court decided in Scotland v Canada to grant release to Mr. Ricardo Scotland from immigration detention. Mr. Scotland, a 38-year-old refugee claimant from Barbados, spent 17 months in the maximum-security Niagara Detention Centre in Thorold, Ontario. Mr. Scotland did not have any criminal record and was never convicted of a crime. In 2013, Mr. Scotland had been criminally charged with possession of a firearm, narcotics, and stolen property. Although his criminal charges were dropped and he was released, the Immigration Division (ID) on four separate occasions claimed that he had breached his conditions. Mr. Scotland was thus arrested on the grounds of flight risk under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA).

Mr. Scotland did not secure release through the usual channel of a hearing before an ID member; rather, he was freed on a writ of habeas corpus– a legal declaration that found his continued administrative detention to be unlawful. Canadian law codifies the writ of habeas corpus in S.10 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter). It empowers any prisoner or detainee to request an assessment of the lawfulness of their detention at the provincial Superior Court. The cases usually turn on information and evidence about why the liberty of the detainee is being restricted, along with the merits of the accusations against them. The so-called Peiroo exception had previously prevented immigration detainees from accessing habeas corpus; but, in 2015, the decision in Chaudhary recognized the availability of habeas corpus in detention-related matters across Ontario. Most recently, in Chhina, the Supreme Court restored access to the writ for all detainees across the country. This restoration is especially important in a federal system that does not observe upper time limits on immigration detention, meaning that the Federal Government is effectively empowered to indefinitely incarcerate non-citizens if the legal grounds for arrest stand up to ongoing validation.

This post takes up research on Mr. Scotland’s case to reveal some of the built-in injustices in the Canadian immigration detention system. We argue here that the legal remedy of habeas corpus is valuable but its efficacy is intrinsically limited by policy, its discretionary interpretation, and other constraints.


The Penal-Like Detention System

Criminal law is penetrating migration policy, but without the attendant protections and rights afforded to people in the criminal justice sphere. Although criminal imprisonment and detention are technically and legally distinct, the overlap of administrative and criminal penalties links them. Increasing criminalization renders migrants – and people who “look like” migrants – vulnerable to becoming both victims and perpetrators of crimes and injustices. A key example is the range of ‘offences’ that only apply to non-citizens, such as over-staying a temporary residence visas and working without a permit. Canadian policy dictates that these banal infractions carry the serious consequences of potential arrest, detention, and removal. Canada draws on an arrangement with its provinces to incarcerate about a third of the detainee population in provincial jails, like what happened to Mr. Scotland. In these institutions, all prisoners face lockdowns, segregation, and limited access to recreation and healthy food, whether on an immigration hold or otherwise.


Implicit Biases in the Canadian Immigration Detention System

Canada identifies as a multicultural and inclusive society; yet scholars have repeatedly demonstrated the racial, gendered, classed, ableist, colonial, and other biases in its historical and contemporary approach to crafting immigration policies, including detention. Popular discursive and historical frames see migrants as dangerous, criminal, and overall risky to Canada. Such archetypes animated the discourse surrounding the 2009 boat arrival of the MV Sun Sea from Thailand and the 2010 arrival of the MV Ocean Lady from Sri Lanka to the coast of British Columbia. In both cases, the Conservative Governments of Stephen Harper (2006-2015) marked these refugees as terrorists, smugglers, and security threats. These marks exacerbate anti-immigration sentiments in Canada, effectively transforming certain newcomers into legally detainable bodies.


Moving Forward

Ricardo Scotland’s detention highlights why new thinking on the remedy of habeas corpus is needed. Restoration of habeas corpus does not and cannot address the larger discriminatory and punitive problems in Canadian detention policies and practices. Instead of overly valorizing the utility of habeas corpus, concerned community members should push for new, robust, and rights-protecting policy that is ideally based in a vision of Canada without detention, not Canada with “better” detention.


How to cite this blog post: Mujtaba, Falak and Stephanie J. Silverman. 2020. “The Limits of Judicial Remedies to Policy Problems: Examining the Restoration of Habeas Corpus for Immigration Detainees in Canada”. In Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice. Edited by Sharry Aiken and Stephanie J. Silverman. Accessed online at


Falak Mujtaba is a PhD (c) at the University of Toronto. Her work focuses on the racialized and gendered nature of immigration detention and exclusionary citizenship practices in Canada.

Stephanie J. Silverman is a detention researcher with a PhD from the University of Oxford. Her book, The Detention Estate, will be published by McGill-Queens University Press in 2021. She is a founding partner at Thinking Forward, a human rights consultancy firm, and co-director of the De-Carceral Futures project. For three years, Dr. Silverman was the Bora Laskin National Fellow in Human Rights Research, and for six years she was on faculty at Trinity College, University of Toronto. This year she is a Research Associate at the Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, and on secondment at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.




Legal Fault Lines in the Hard Cases

by Almeera Khalid and Sharry Aiken


This post will explain the socio-legal rationale for ‘preventive detention’ that serves as an implicit justification for incarcerating migrants in Canada. Policy-makers should be troubled by the legislation that introduces a very low threshold of proof needed before the government can incarcerate someone for a legally limitless period of time. Four recent cases demonstrate the legal fault lines of this policy. This post will focus, therefore, on a core idea behind detention in order to flesh out why policy-makers should devote more attention to immigration detention.

“Preventive detention” in law

As mentioned in the Introduction to this post, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) is Canada’s immigration framework legislation. IRPA stipulates the reasons that can justify so-called “preventive detention” and delegates power and authority to CBSA officials to incarcerate non-citizens if they have “reasonable grounds to believe” that they may qualify for one or more of the detention grounds. Yet, each ground is really a means to prevent something from happening: namely, some combination of absconding, identity fraud, and/or future criminal or security infractions.

Put another way, the rationale behind preventive detention is threefold: first, that some people can be deemed to pose “risks” to safety or security that never abate; second, that this label should be applied to non-citizens as a precursor to removal from Canada; and, third, that the Canadian government has a responsibility to limit risky non-citizens’ access to the community in order to prevent these potential harms from occurring.

While IRPA’s provisions stipulate that the law must be applied in a manner which is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the international human rights instruments to which Canada is a signatory, these caveats have failed to prevent abuses. Revised Detention Guidelines promulgated by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) stipulate that immigration detention is as an “exceptional measure” and emphasize that detainees are entitled to a “robust and meaningful review”. Nevertheless, individuals detained on the basis of alleged criminality or security concerns have all too often found themselves caught up in an endless cycle of review with no prospect of actual release. As noted by an external audit of the IRB’s Immigration Division last year, “notable discrepancies” between expectations articulated by the courts and actual practice persist.

It is likely that this policy issue is little-known because the detainees whom it most affects are often marginalized. Real-life case studies demonstrate the profound consequences of Canada’s policy failures. Take, for instance, the case of Mr. Kashif Ali in Ontario. Mr. Ali claimed refugee protection in Canada in 1986, but was declared ‘inadmissible’ in 1995 after a spate of criminal convictions for petty offences related to drugs. After serving his criminal sentence, Mr. Ali entered immigration detention although he was physically incarcerated in a provincial maximum-security correctional centre. He endured seven years of imprisonment until the Canadian government eventually deemed him “stateless” and released him on conditions in 2017. His lawsuit for compensation for unlawful detention alleges that he continues to suffer today from depression and anxiety stemming from his confinement and, specifically, the beatings from guards, near-daily lockdowns, and time in segregation.

Profiled in the “Caged by Canada” exposé in the Toronto Star, Ebrahim Touré spent 5 ½ years behind bars because the Canadian Border Services Agency believed he would not show up for removal if it was ever arranged. Mr. Touré spent the first 4 ½ years in a maximum-security jail. After his transfer to the Toronto immigration holding centre, Mr. Touré was eventually released in September 2018. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was asked to consider Mr. Touré’s case. Its June 2019 conclusions rebuked Canada for its continued failure to implement clear legislative standards limiting the maximum period for detention in the course of migration proceedings.

In 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released its decision in the case of Mr. Manickavasagem Suresh. Mr. Suresh had been subject to an “immigration security certificate” on the basis of an alleged association with the Tamil Tigers. Mr. Suresh sought to refute the allegations against him but languished in the Don Jail for almost two and a half years before he was released. The IACHR concluded that Canada had violated an immigration detainee’s right to a fair trial and protection from arbitrary arrest by denying Mr. Suresh access to a prompt and adequate means of challenging the legality of his detention. The IACHR ruled that the circumstances of Mr. Suresh’s detention constituted a clear violation of his right to equality under the law and concluded that Canada should grant Mr. Suresh reparations, including compensation.

This past year, the Supreme Court of Canada considered the case of Mr. Tusif Ur Chhina’s application for access to the legal remedy of habeas corpus. Lawyers for Mr. Chhina were challenging the basis of his 13-month detention in an Alberta correctional centre following his time spent in criminal custody (see Mojtuba and Silverman, in this series, on habeas corpus).  The Court ruled that while the IRPA protects against arbitrary detention, in application its scheme is not as broad and advantageous as habeas corpus. The Court drew attention to the IRPA’s statutory scheme providing inadequate procedural mechanisms to challenge the length, uncertain duration, and location of detention. It thus reinstated cross-Canada access to habeas corpus for all detainees. As for Mr. Chhina, he was deported from Canada in 2017—after nearly two years on lockdown for 22.5 hours per day at the Calgary Remand Centre and long before the injustices of his plight could be remedied.

This post has thus attempted to lay out the legal debate over the limits of “preventive detention”. All of these cases illustrate the coercive power of the CBSA in indefinitely incarcerating people for past criminal activity (Mr. Ali, Mr. Touré and Mr. Chhina) and presumed security risk (Mr. Suresh). While recent initiatives to promote alternatives to detention and reduce the overall numbers of non-citizens in detention may be a step in the right direction, these policies are no substitute for law reform that puts an end to indefinite immigration detention in Canada. Most importantly, policy-makers must not turn away from the “hard” cases when thinking through the legal fault lines of current detention practices.


How to cite this blog post: Khalid, Almeera and Sharry Aiken. 2020. “Legal Fault Lines in the Hard Cases”. In Introducing De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice. Edited by Sharry Aiken and Stephanie J. Silverman. Accessed online at


Almeera Khalid is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. She is pursuing a double major in Ethics, Society, and Law along with Criminology and Socio-legal studies and a minor in Political Science. She is involved in student groups driving for change and volunteers with community organizations in her spare time. She is interested in how law and policy translate back into society and is passionate about immigration and foreign policy, human rights, and creating/ sharing a space for people of colour to step up into leadership.


Sharry Aiken is an Associate Professor at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Law. Sharry is a past president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, co-editor of the PKI Global Justice Journal, and former Editor-in-Chief of the journal Refuge. She co-organized the “Decarceral Futures” workshop convened in May 2019 at Queen’s University with Stephanie Silverman and Lisa Guenther.