The Canada Border Services Agency detains people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public, those who arrive in very large groups, and newcomers whose identities cannot be confirmed.
Since the border agency was established in 2003, 11 people have died in custody — two in federal holding centres and nine in provincial facilities, according to the agency.
The two most recent deaths happened in the span of a week in March, reigniting calls for more scrutiny of the organization, which has many of the powers of a police service.
In each case, the border agency issued a brief statement without the individual's name or information about how they died.
An agency spokeswoman said the federal Privacy Act prevented the release of details.
During a teleconference Thursday, several human rights and refugee groups challenged that claim.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, called it an "exaggerated reading" of the Privacy Act.
He noted the law allows agencies to invoke exceptions in the public interest or in the interest of the person whose personal information is involved.
Federal agencies have obligations under the Privacy Act, but the fact that a death occurs in border agency custody, and the circumstances around it, should become public, said Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
"They definitely need to be more transparent in relation to their operations."
Monia Mazigh of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group said the lack of available information amounted to excuses — attempts to avoid discussion of tragic deaths and the actions that caused them.
The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said recently the government was examining how best to provide the border agency "with appropriate review mechanisms."
Neve said the silence around deaths underscores the importance of effective review and oversight, so that issues around privacy can be "more reliably and independently worked out."
Author: Jim Bronskill