As images of children caged in industrial prison facilities have emerged from Trump’s America, Canadians have rightly reacted with shock and horror.

The American policy of separating children from their parents crossing the border is an outrage against human decency which ought to be widely condemned.

But it’s also a wake-up call for Canadians to examine our own detention practices with regards to refugees and immigrants.

A University of Toronto report published in 2016 revealed that the Canada Border Services Agency detained an average of 48 children per year — separate from their family — between 2011 and 2015 under the government of Stephen Harper.

The report notes that “Children who live in detention for even brief periods experience significant psychological harm that often persists long after they are released” and that “Children who have lived in detention experience increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation. Many also experience developmental delays and behavioural issues.”

Detention of children is an unconscionable crime that must end. The report finds that the detention of children has diminished since 2015, and “recent initiatives by Canada’s federal government and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) indicate a strong willingness to reform the immigration detention regime.”

However, the report also finds that family separation — the practice of indefinite detention of parents without their children — causes substantial harm to children and has continued unabated in recent years. In fact, Canada currently allows indefinite detention of refugees and immigrants.

Explaining the harms associated with family separation, the report cites Irwin Elman, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth:

There is no decision made in the life of a child that can be considered more serious than removing them from their families. Separating a child from their family has truly life-altering consequences for the child. The act of an apprehension becomes part of a narrative that they carry forever

If we are to have a humane immigration system, Canada must end the practice of child detention, family separation, and indefinite detention. Fortunately, a number of viable alternatives are available and have been successfully implemented in other countries.

The Swedish Model

Sweden uses a system of supervision of newcomers within the community that involves regular check-ins with caseworkers. Detention is used as a last-resort rather than an immediate option for border agents. As the University of Toronto report notes, “Families with children may only be detained if supervision is deemed insufficient or has failed, and only in appropriate facilities.”

The Hong Kong Model

The International Social Service Hong Kong Branch (ISSHK) — a Hong Kong NGO — supports asylum claimants while their applications are processed. ISSHK clients receive support with housing, food, and other basic necessities while living in the community. ISSHK provides an alternative to detention for thousands of people seeking asylum.

The Belgian Model

Families seeking asylum in Belgium are not detained. Instead they receive support from the Belgian government to provide for basic needs and are housed in apartments in the community. They are assigned a case manager who oversees their application process from start to finish.

Whatever model Canada selects, it’s clear that the detention of children and separation of families is an unnecessary element of our immigration and refugee system. The Federal government should commit to ending this practice as a principle, and expedite the process of implementing alternative solutions.