Guest post by Jeff Shantz. Jeff is a full-time faculty member in the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University on Coast Salish territories (in Metro Vancouver). He is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and co-founding member of the Social Justice Centre at KPU, where he is lead researcher on the Anti-Poverty/Criminalization/Social War Policing project.

Recently, a great deal of attention has been given to deaths of individuals in the custody of border control agencies in the United States—particularly the deaths of two children in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody amid the Trump administration’s panic over the ‘migrant caravan’ and ‘the wall’. Comparatively little attention has been given to similar issues north of the US border.

Yet we have clearly seen a border panic brewing in Canada over the course of 2018 into 2019. Conservative politicians blame irregular migration for rising crime and urban degradation and frame it as a threat to Canadian sovereignty, culture and law. Amplified by mainstream media spokespeople this narrative represents an echo of the anti-migrant panic over the Wall in the United States. Far Right, neofascist mobilizations have occurred in several cities across Canada throughout 2018 calling for tighter border restrictions. On January 25, 2019, Lisa Raitt, the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada argued ‘that the border isn’t secure’ and attributed the fear Canadians feel to this. Raitt continued that migration was a security issue rather than a matter of immigration policy, shifting the frame to one of criminality and public safety rather than human rights or needs.

From Moral Panic to Border Panic

Narratives of threat and in/security at the border stir what criminologists call ‘moral panics.’ Similarly, Hisham Ramadan and I call social phobias the manufactured politics around migration and especially irregular migration. Moral entrepreneurs (community groups, businesses, political parties, etc.) incite public sentiment around specific issues which become matters of public anxiety or fear, disproportionate to their actual impact, once amplified by mass media.

In his book, Strangers at our Door, Zygmunt Bauman applies the notion of moral panic to borders and migration. Bauman suggests that in a period of precariousness and insecurity (as under neoliberal austerity) feelings of openness and compassion, even identification with the suffering can be superseded by feelings of fear or uncertainty, even hostility. This fear or uncertainty can be vulnerable to manipulation by far-right groups or politicians (such as the Conservative Party in Canada). This manufactured panic is not matched by the numbers of people actually involved in migration across the border, a point reinforced by much of the scholarship.

Similarly, in the Australian context, Greg Martin has suggested that border panics become successful because they resonate with deep-seated anxieties about national identity and ways of life in setter colonial contexts. In Australia, as in Canada, this relates to the fear of ‘invasion’ and, less acknowledged, concern with multiculturalism in society more broadly. Martin suggests that these panics over irregular migration and asylum seekers can move beyond the episodic nature of a classic moral panic in the context of the ‘war on terror’ which focuses on the figure of the terrorist refugee (a transnational folk devil) but can further be transformed into ongoing appeals for heightened border securitization.

In this line of thought, Massey, Durand, and Pren argue that tougher, securitized (even militarized) border enforcement in the US developed as policy responses to a moral panic over perceived threats of increased migration to the US.

The Canadian Border Panic

This can offer insights into the current politically driven fear politics in Canada. In a lesson for our context in Canada, Massey et al. suggest that the mobilization of increased border security resources (driven by border agency bureaucrats as well as politicians and media commentators) in the US resulted in a self-reproducing cycle of growing enforcement and apprehensions that were not linked with the actual movements of irregular migrants. As we see in Canada, calls for increased deportations occur even as migration levels remain relatively low.

Fears around borders can meld with fears around crime and criminality and prioritize discourses of security and enforcement. And these fears of crime can be articulated along similar lines of oppression, such as racialization, nationality and ethnicity, as recent research in the Canadian context explores. Anna Pratt has outlined the waves of moral panics over borders in Canada, including the construction of migrants as frauds, criminals, and security threats (See Walia here).

As a result, Canadian people have become vulnerable to the moral panics incited by fear-driven politics. A poll by the Angus Reid Institute released in August 2018 found that two-thirds of Canadians believe the arrival of people seeking asylum in Canada (particularly those crossing the US border into Canada) is now a ‘crisis.’ Forty-nine percent said they wanted to see the 2018 federal government target of 310,000 immigrants reduced. Unsurprisingly, the reality does not match the panic. In 2017, Canada accepted 7,500 Government Assisted Refugees and 16,000 Privately Sponsored Refugees.


These are relatively tiny numbers compared to the number of people forcibly leaving the country. Almost 400 people who crossed the border from the US had been deported from Canada between April 2017 and September 2018. Forty-eight were under the age of 17. According to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) statistics, the total number of ‘failed irregular-arrival asylum claimants’ deported by CBSA between January 1 and November 5, 2018, was 296. An additional 534 ‘actionable removal cases’ were approved for deportation but have not yet been fully carried out. On the whole there were 8,472 deportations in 2017 and more than 6,000 in 2018, though full numbers have not yet been released. And there is a push to expand the deportation regime in Canada. Internal CBSA emails obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) show the agency plans to increase deportation by 25 to 35 percent. That would escalate deportations to 10,000 people per year.

Detention centers in Canada held around 87,317 migrants without any criminal charges between 2006 and 2014. This includes about 807 children per year on average. In 2013, migrants in detention had spent a collective 503 years incarcerated in Canada. In 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the Canadian immigration detention system for arbitrary and/or unlimited detention, detaining migrants in prisons, imprisoning people with mental health issues, and for unhealthy conditions (including family separation). Canada now practices mandatory detention for those designated as irregular arrivals. Border agents can legally apply that designation simply if they decide they want more time to investigate.

While much attention has been given to deaths in custody in the US, very little has been made of deaths in custody of the CBSA. Yet since 2000, there have been at least 14 deaths of people detained by CBSA according to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). In 2016, two people died in custody within a week. These deaths prompted calls by advocacy groups, for the creation of an independent oversight agency to investigate deaths in detention and to investigate allegations of officer misconduct. The body was never established and there is currently no external oversight body for CBSA officers in Canada.

In 2018, there was at least one death in detention recorded. In one higher profile case, 49-year-old Nigerian, Balante Idowu Alo, a declined asylum seeker, died during an attempted deportation in August. The man was forced on a KLM flight to Amsterdam when an undisclosed incident occurred. Calgary police allegedly entered the plane to find Mr. Alo in distress. He would later die at a Calgary hospital. This has not been fully investigated yet.

Reactions: A Look Ahead

There is still too little awareness of the situation and the efforts of people seeking justice. It has received much less critical attention in Canada than in the United States. And loud voices of fear have taken up too much air space.

Anti-migrant sentiment, and mobilizations of far-right movements against migration in Canada, have become marked by a toxic combination of punitive and repressive alternatives. As 2019 is an election year, immigration detention, deportation and border control more generally, will become a lightening rod for public opinion from politicians of all stripes. As academics and activists, we need to bring the politics of fear and wider social unease against migration at the centre of our research, scholarship, dissemination and organizing.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Shantz, J. (2019) The Other North American Border Panic: Detention, Deportation, Death in Canada. Available at: (Accessed [date])