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Study gives tentative nod to electronic tools for tracking immigrants

Mohamed Harkat shows a reporter his ankle bracelet and GPS tracking device as he leaves the Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa, Monday September 21, 2009. An internal federal study says electronic monitoring could be a useful alternative to locking up some immigrants and refugee claimants.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
September 23, 2014 - 5:03 AM

OTTAWA - Electronic monitoring could be a useful alternative to locking up some immigrants and refugee claimants, says an internal study by Canada's border agency.

The research report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, looks at the use of wired ankle bracelets, voice-recognition systems and other tracking tools in seven countries.

It suggests electronic monitoring can save money and reduce the administrative burden of managing detainees in holding cells.

Several of the countries in the study use technological means to track criminal offenders, but only Britain and the United States have applied the techniques to immigration.

The Canada Border Services Agency study, prompted by recommendations of a Commons committee, could lay the groundwork for a Canadian pilot project to test the technologies.

An accompanying briefing note to border agency president Luc Portelance says officials will do a full cost-benefit analysis of electronic monitoring within the immigration setting "as an important step toward the development of any pilot program."

"Careful consideration must be taken in determining the appropriate target population, in addition to the specific electronic monitoring technology used, and the conditions or restrictions on its use."

The border agency detained 9,929 people for an average of 19 days in 2011-12 in immigration holding centres and provincial facilities.

The British Columbia coroner is investigating the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, who tried to kill herself while in border agency custody last December. She was taken to hospital and died days later.

The border agency makes limited use of electronic tracking. It has a biometric telephone reporting system in the Toronto region that recognizes voices of people slated for deportation, while a handful of Muslim men held on national security certificates were monitored using sophisticated global positioning system ankle bracelets in recent years.

Britain and the U.S. have used these techniques in their immigration programs, as well as radio frequency tracking devices worn on the wrist or ankle that do not record a person's every move but help enforce curfews by sending signals via telephone.

The study says while there is little data on such programs, they "appear to achieve their primary objectives."

It costs the border agency $239 a day to detain someone, many times the cost of a typical electronic monitoring program.

However, the study cites practical hurdles, including the need to have a phone line for some of the tools, questions about the appropriateness of monitoring for the elderly, mentally ill and disabled, and the possible effects on pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Various groups have raised concerns about the border agency's detention program, and the Canadian Council for Refugees has urged it to make alternatives to locking people up a priority.

There could be benefits to electronic monitoring if done in "a limited way" to avoid incarceration, said Janet Dench, the council's executive director.

However, Dench said in a interview, she's concerned such tracking could be applied to newcomers who don't really need to be monitored simply because it might be easy and inexpensive.

The internal agency briefing note says a strategy discussing all potential alternatives to detention was expected to be complete last June.

Border agency spokeswoman Esme Bailey refused to make anyone available to discuss the subject.

In an emailed response to questions, Bailey said the agency would continue to review existing research on electronic monitoring as well as the value of expanding current programs — such as telephone voice reporting — to other regions.

"Timelines for the completion of this analysis, and possible implementation of any resultant initiatives, are currently being refined."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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