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Vancouver lawyer welcomes new mental health funding for immigration detainees

August 17, 2016

CBC News | Advocates are applauding an increase in federal funding for mental health care for immigrants held in detention.

Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for the public safety minister, revealed that $10.5 million of the total $138 million to rebuild immigration detention centres in Quebec and Vancouver will be devoted to increase health and mental health care for detainees. The new immigration detention centre will be in Surrey, B.C.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Peter Edelmann told The Early Edition he sees a need for those services for his clients.

“A lot of people are suffering from trauma when they arrive here,” Edelmann said.

“Going straight into a jail — in particular if the trauma that you’ve suffered in your country had to do with abuse or persecution at the hands of authorities — is traumatic for anybody.”

The Canadian Border Services Agency detains individual if they’re worried they won’t show up to future immigration hearings, if they’re concerned the individual may be dangerous, or to figure out their identity, Edelmann explained.

He said some refugee claimants flee their country with no identity documents or with fake ones.

Limited space for detainees

Advocates have been calling for better access to mental health treatment for detainees for some time. A 2015 report out of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program deemed detainees’ access to mental health care in Ontario jails “woefully inadequate.”

Edelmann pointed to Lucia Vega Jimenez, the woman who hung herself in the Vancouver airport holding centre while awaiting deportation to Mexico in 2013, as an example of the need for better care.

“There had been signs that [Jimenez] needed help but that help just wasn’t available.”

Limited space in immigration holding centres means detainees can end up in provincial prisons.

In those jails, Edelmann said, overlap between provincial inmates and federal immigration detainees contributes to mental health care oversight.

“Corrections authorities deal with inmates in a different way than they deal with immigration detainees, which they view to be the CBSA’s responsibility. And then CBSA was saying corrections authorities were dealing with it because they’re in the provincial jails.”

Further reform needed

Ayendri Perera, an advocate with the End Immigration Detention Network, said while she was pleased the government was acknowledging the need for mental health care for detainees, she disagreed with building a new centre in Vancouver.

“The primary cause for the mental health issues is their detention … It’s really frustrating that the response is to invest into building more [detention facilities],” she said.

Edelmann said he’d also like to see independent oversight of the Canadian Border Services Agency, the federal body that deals with detaining individuals without legal immigration status, as well as a limit on how long the CBSA can detain individuals for administrative purposes.

“These are people who have not committed a crime,” he said. “They haven’t been accused or convicted of any crime. Detaining them indefinitely is deeply problematic, from my perspective.”

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