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The Electronic Shackling of Migrants Illustration by Nicole Xu

The Electronic Shackling of Migrants

Canada is quietly expanding its digital alternatives to immigration detention. Joe Bongiorno investigates the harm being done to detainees.

Jatinder Singh was having trouble sleeping. In his Montreal apartment, he couldn’t toss and turn at night without worrying about dislodging the cord of his ankle monitor from its charging station. The low-battery device would beep and alert the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), potentially landing Singh back in the Laval Immigration Holding Centre.

Singh, a former farmer, came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2017. He says he risks being the target of political violence in his home country of India because of his father’s affiliations with a political party. But Singh was denied refugee status in 2019. He remained in Montreal and worked as an undocumented essential worker, driving a delivery truck in the early days of the pandemic. In March 2020, another car bumped into his parked truck. When police arrived on scene, they discovered Singh was undocumented and arrested him, locking him up in the nearby detention centre. 

After two months inside, Singh was released with a number of conditions, including that he wear an ankle monitor to track his location and that he live under the watch of family members in Montreal. But the surveillance technology he was forced to bear disrupted more than a night of restful sleep. 

On several occasions, Singh’s device malfunctioned and drew the police. “It didn’t work properly,” says Singh’s cousin, who lived in the shared family home and served as his bondsperson (her name is being withheld to protect her identity). She likens the sound of the device to a fire alarm and says the family lived in constant fear that it would go off at any moment.

One night, the family got caught in traffic as Singh’s 7 PM curfew approached. He had had to accompany his cousin to her baby daughter’s appointment across the city because his conditions prohibited him from being alone in the house. When his curfew hit, the tracking bracelet vibrated and sounded its alarm. 

Outside the perimeter of the house, Singh was in breach of his conditions and feared getting locked up once more. His phone was ringing and the child was bawling. Terrified, they answered the CBSA’s call to explain what had happened and waited for the police to arrive. By the time the CBSA gave the police on scene clearance to let them go, the family had waited on the road for three hours amid the din.

In spring 2020, the CBSA began releasing migrant detainees from immigration holding centres and jails. The agency has the authority to detain non-citizens for a range of reasons, including if they suspect someone is inadmissible to the country, dangerous, a flight risk, or unable to prove their identity. Amid Covid-19 outbreaks and inmate hunger strikes in detention facilities and prisons across Canada, many people in Quebec and Ontario were released into the community as part of the CBSA’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program, first implemented in the summer of 2018. 

Under the program, a growing number of migrants are electronically tracked like Singh. Ankle monitors are among the latest electronic supervision tools in the CBSA’s ATD toolkit, which also includes cash bonds to secure release and electronic voice reporting. The CBSA employs these tools to track otherwise detained non-citizens and ensure their compliance with immigration proceedings. According to the CBSA, the “ATDs are chosen by analyzing the specific type of risk posed by the individual,” and the agency may impose a variety of different alternatives on a person at once for “maximum risk avoidance.”

Since March 2020, thirty-six “high-risk” individuals have been released from detention centres with tracking bracelets provided to the CBSA by Correctional Service Canada, which itself acquires a least some of those devices from Jemtec Inc., a publicly traded digital IT company. Those with bracelets who do not, for unknown reasons, qualify for the CBSA’s electronic monitoring program—seven people, by the CBSA’s count—are enrolled in a monitoring program managed by a third party.

Many legal experts question the justification of the electronic monitoring program in a country that sets no limits on how long authorities can keep a person in immigration detention or on its alternatives. Tracking people like Singh might keep them out of jail cells or holding centres, but “it is one hundred percent an intrusion on their right to privacy and liberty, citizen or not,” says Anthony Navaneelan, vice president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. 

Immigration and refugee lawyer Jared Will agrees. Tracking bracelets impose more restrictions on liberty than can be justified legally or morally, he says, citing the example of his stateless Guinean client, Ebrahim Toure. Toure entered Canada using a cousin’s passport and claimed refugee status for fear of returning to Guinea. He was denied and detained for more than five years between 2013 and 2018, mostly in a medium and maximum-security jail in Lindsay, Ontario. 

In 2020, the CBSA rearrested Toure and attempted to deport him. According to Will, the Gambian passport the CBSA had obtained to send Toure back to the Gambia was fraudulent. The CBSA has not yet dropped the deportation order, but the agency is not enforcing it pending an internal investigation into the incident. 

Today, Toure remains in Canada without status. He was forced to wear an ankle monitor for about two months upon his release, in addition to participating in electronic voice reporting and paying a $6,000 bond. “In a lot of cases we see, not just GPS monitoring, conditions [are] imposed because they’re available rather than because they’re justified,” says Will. 

Toure used to wear long clothing to hide his ankle monitor. He didn’t want to draw the gazing and gossiping of strangers, but the bulky device did not fit into his winter boots. He recalls an incident on a Toronto streetcar when the woman behind him noticed his monitor bulging out of his clothing. He heard her whisper to her friend that he was a criminal, but he didn’t respond. “When I got out of the streetcar and got onto the bus, I was crying,” he says.

The monitor also severely restricted his ability to function in the society he had sought refuge in. The CBSA would regularly call him while he was grocery shopping and watching TV and ask him to go for fifteen-minute walks to test his GPS location, sometimes in the middle of the night during the winter, he says. 

“I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice,” Toure says. He would walk the frigid streets of North York until the CBSA told him he could return to the warmth of his bed. He says his neighbourhood is unsafe, especially at night, but he was more frightened by the prospect of breaching his conditions and being detained again. 

The use of tracking bracelets is one of the most coercive and detrimental alternatives to detention, “especially for the psychological distress it creates,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It says that such surveillance tools are “harsh, not least because of the criminal stigma attached to their use and should as far as possible be avoided.” 

Immigration detainees experience trauma, distress and powerlessness, which deepens existing psychological wounds like depression and post-traumatic stress, according to a Human Rights Watch report. “I have met clients who believe very clearly that they did not think they would ever be released. You can’t plan your life, you can’t imagine your future. It is the most invasive tool in immigration authorities’ arsenal,” says Will. 

In 2014, Will accused the federal government of violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a constitutional challenge against the practice of locking non-citizens up indefinitely. The challenge was denied in 2017. 

For Hanna Gros, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, the psychological turmoil resulting from immigration detention extends to alternatives to detention. “There’s no timeline. It’s open-ended. People can spend months and even years on it. It’s that much more devastating when people are coming to Canada to seek safety, and instead of a warm welcome, they’re met with handcuffs,” she says. 

“In some cases, people are required to live with their bondsperson, so effectively, their family members or loved ones become something of an extension of the law enforcement agency,” says Gros. Singh’s cousin, for instance, described her home as a prison. “It’s an incredible burden for them to take on. It can create tensions within family dynamics, and it’s particularly harmful for people who desperately rely on those familial connections and support systems, not only to recover from whatever it is that they fled from, but also to recover from detention.” 

In addition to the price paid in psychological distress, the cost of alternatives is sometimes payable in dollars and cents. Since some migrants do not qualify for the CBSA pilot project for undisclosed reasons, they are forced to foot the hefty bill for their own surveillance through a third-party provider. Singh’s family says they paid $800 per month on top of a $3,300 installation fee, $500 for its removal, and a final charge of $70 to clean the device. 

Canada had temporarily paused all deportation dates from March to November 2020 due to the pandemic, but quietly resumed the practice by the end of the year. After calling Canada home for four years, Singh was deported in June 2021. CBSA officials sent him back to India at the height of the country’s second wave of Covid-19, as crematoriums spilled into Delhi’s parking lots and the dead were being burned in the streets. Now living in the country of his birth, Singh’s cousin says he is afraid to leave the house.

Singh and Toure are not criminals, but they both bore the shackles of convicted offenders. And the ATD program is just one part of a broader,  decade-long expansion of immigration surveillance in Canada. 

Under Harper’s Conservatives, Canada adopted a law and order approach to managing migration. The passing of Bill C-31 in 2012 introduced initiatives for collecting people’s biometric data and shortened deadlines to prove refugee claims, according to the Justice for Refugees and Immigrants Coalition. The bill also granted ministers unprecedented discretion to revoke refugee status, imprison refugee claimants with minimized oversight, and designate countries of origin as “safe.” 

Meanwhile, Trudeau’s Liberal administration has seen the creation of a new immigration holding centre in Surrey, BC, more migrants held in prisons, and last year, the most deportations since Trudeau took office—875 more removals in 2020 than in 2019. 

In 2018, a federal audit uncovered deficiencies in half of randomly selected detention hearings from the files of individuals held for over one hundred days. (Of the twenty files reviewed, which included 312 separate hearings, 30 percent of them contained deficiencies.) 

The audit found that members of the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Immigration Division often declined to hear testimony from potential bondspersons or evidence offered in support of release plans. In many cases, members failed to independently assess inaccurate statements presented by CBSA officers, which determined the fates of detainees who in some cases were without legal representation. 

Stephanie Silverman, a research associate at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, believes the negative attention the audit generated likely contributed to Canada’s decision to roll out tracking bracelets. She also thinks tagging people with tools from the criminal justice system further blurs the line between migration and criminality. 

In fact, Petra Molnar, the associate director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University, argues tracking bracelets transform detention, binding person and prison. “There’s something really disturbing about the embodiment of the prison,” she says. “Literally, your body becomes part of your carceral experience, which I think is really a violent experience, one that you cannot easily shed, and that’s with you at all times.” 

Canada’s treatment of migrants is not unique. Our system is one of many in a global dynamic in which racialized non-citizens are framed as criminals or dangerous, says Janet Dench, executive director at the Canadian Council for Refugees. “Administrative issues such as failure to have a proper visa to enter Canada or to overstay your visa, things like that are conflated with some sort of criminality, with risk.”

Casting such a wide net on people who do not have the proper recourse to defend themselves unfairly subjects them to detention and surveillance, says Navaneelan. He thinks Canadians should be alarmed by the CBSA’s unchecked powers. 

This lack of transparency comes with deadly consequences. Since 2000, at least sixteen people have died in immigration detention. But despite public outcry and Trudeau’s 2019 campaign promise to create an independent review body, calls for CBSA oversight have failed to spark change. Multiple bill proposals have gone unanswered, and it remains the only major police force operating in Canada without independent civilian oversight.

Critics accuse the CBSA of the same opaqueness in its deployment of tracking bracelets. Originally conducted in the Greater Toronto Area in 2018, the electronic monitoring pilot was expanded during the pandemic to include Quebec in April of 2020. Once a pilot is completed, it is supposed to be evaluated and learned from, says Dench. “But that was never done. They simply announced that they were extending it.” At the dawn of the pandemic, the CBSA called the measure “temporary,” but in an emailed statement to Maisonneuve the agency confirmed that the pilot project has since been extended to 2022.

Syed Hussan, a member of the Migrant Rights Network, thinks the effect of ATDs like tracking bracelets might be, in some ways, more insidious than holding a person within the walls of a cell. New forms of digital detainment enhance the CBSA’s capacity to monitor many more people, but with even less transparency about discretionary decision-making processes. “I don’t think this is a shift in the right direction,” he says.

Emergency events like the pandemic are often “used to create a state of exception that normalizes the ramming through of problematic policies and extra-legal measures,” says Molnar. “At the borders of Europe, Covid has been weaponized as a way to, for example, close refugee camps and roll out more surveillance technology.” Countries on the frontlines of migration like Greece and Jordan have adopted AI and biometric technologies like iris scanning and facial recognition, trends that may indicate which tools Canada will embrace next. 

As the CBSA’s electronic monitoring pilot continues into its fourth year, more people who have crossed borders and oceans in hopes of becoming Canadian will end up in shackles or behind bars. But beyond the debate between immigration detention and its alternatives, the question remains whether either option can serve as an alternative to release. 

“I think [ATDs] are justified by the Canadian state as a less intrusive form of immigration detention,” says Molnar. “But I think the question really is: is immigration detention legitimate, period? And if we as a society think it’s not, why are we then using these alternative ways of normalizing it in some way?”

While the pandemic has seen the expansion of tracking bracelets, it may also provide lessons on how to treat would-be Canadians. The unprecedented rate at which the authorities released immigration detainees three months into 2020 shows that we have arrived at a fork in the road, says Gros. It could be an opportunity to not return to business as usual. 

“We really need to scrutinize the disproportionately coercive and punitive measures that we take against people who are here to seek protection in a better life,” she says. “What does it say about us as Canadians that our system treats many people so poorly and causes such devastation, not only to the people who are experiencing detention, but also their loved ones and their communities?”

Achieving consensus on an alternative remains a work-in-progress. The CBSA maintains that detention is a measure of last resort. Some advocates are pushing for the abolition of migration management. Others are calling for a shift towards community-based management models in which nonprofit organizations assist migrants living freely in the community and follow up on their cases to ensure their compliance with immigration regulations. 

In the meantime, those making the journey north to Canada’s border will continue to wonder how they will be greeted when they finally arrive.

Joe Bongiorno is a freelance journalist, fiction author and former high school teacher. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Canadian Notes & Queries, Event, Geist, CBC, Canadian Geographic and the National Observer. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection.