New Rules for Border Officers Draws Concerns over Perceived Criminalization of Asylum Seekers
New rules requiring Canada’s border-security officers to wear defensive gear while working with detained migrants is drawing criticism and being deemed a form of criminalization of asylum seekers.
According to a new national policy on uniforms that was adopted by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) last year, all border-security officers will be armed with batons, pepper spray and bulletproof vests while working with migrants detained in immigration holding centres.
Going forward, these officers will not carry firearms but must wear steel-toed boots, soft body armour, a defensive baton, pepper spray and handcuffs—the same gear as correctional officers in maximum-security prisons.
According to the Canadian Press, the agency has said that the officers working in these centres must be outfitted in such gear to ensure a “common operational approach” because the migrants had been previously detained in provincial jails.
Those seeking asylum in Canada can be detained by the CBSA for different reasons, including if officers believe they would be deemed inadmissible on the grounds of security, criminal record, or a history of violating human or international rights.
You can also be detained simply if a CBSA officer believes there is a chance you might not show up for a refugee-determination hearing. According to statistics released by the federal government, the majority of migrants that are detained are held for this very reason.
In 2018, 81% of detained migrants were held by CBSA because they were considered “unlikely to appear” for their hearings. This included 40 children, most of whom were travelling with adults.
The changes to how officers are outfitted when working in detention centres have understandably sparked harsh criticism. Critics of the new rules have stated that this will create a jail-like environment in immigration detention centres and fuel the perception that those seeking a better life in Canada, including parents and young children, should be treated like criminals deserving of punishment.
Concerns have also been raised by the union representing border security officers. The union’s concern is that having weapons increases risk in the event of a confrontation.
Anthony Navaneelan, a lawyer with Legal Aid Ontario who works with the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, told the Canadian Press that it’s uncommon for the border-security union and migrant-advocacy groups to find common ground. He added that wearing defensive gear while working with refugees is “inappropriate and unnecessary.”
In response to the criticism, a CBSA spokesperson told the Canadian Press that the agency “ensured that there is a balance reflected between the safety and security of officers and other detainees.”
However, advocates still argue that defensive gear should only be worn in certain areas of detention centres where migrants that are suspected of being security or criminal threats are being held.