Canada's child detention policy unjust, illegal: rights group

September 22, 2016 3:39 PM EDT

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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's practice of putting children in immigration detention centers or separating them from detained parents is causing them psychological harm and violates international law, a rights group said on Thursday.

An estimated 242 children per year, from 2010 to 2014, were detained at Canadian immigration centers resembling medium-security prisons, according to a report from the University of Toronto's International Human Rights program.

That figure does not include children who were not personally subjected to detention orders but accompanied their parents who were detained. Some of those uncounted children were Canadian citizens while others were refugees or immigrants.

"We shouldn't be detaining children when there's no need to detain them. That should be a very easy sell, and it's something that the government should have addressed a long time ago," program director Samer Muscati said in an interview.

In some cases, families can spare a child from detention by agreeing to leave them with a relative or put them into foster care.

The group wants the government to find alternatives, even suggesting the use of electronic monitoring, to a system that currently detains children from as young as newborns to teenagers.

Canada's Border Services Agency can hold immigrants and refugees if an officer feels they may not cooperate with a future deportation order, they are a danger to the public, their identity is unclear or while a deportation is finalized.

When legal cases are complex or a detainee's birth country does not allow or accept deportees, detention can effectively become indefinite.

In the United States, detention facilities were expanded in 2014 after tens of thousands of children, many unaccompanied, arrived from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Canada's public safety minister said in a statement that Ottawa was working on options and "wants to try to avoid housing children in detention facilities, as much as humanly possible."

(Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Daniel Bases)

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