Immigration Detention: Airing Canada’s Dirty Laundry

When Justin Trudeau announced that the Liberal government would be sponsoring 25,000 Syrian refugees, many Canadians were happy to pat ourselves on the back for being such a compassionate country. We liked and retweeted photos of Trudeau welcoming such refugees at the airport. We congratulated ourselves for having such a cute and caring Prime Minister. In the continual hurricane of nationalist, anti-immigration debris that has been flying around as of late, we thought of Trudeau as a beam of light shining through the clouds.

But, what had once looked like the Sun clearing out the grey day is starting to look a lot more like a flickering streetlight: while it attempts to shed some light, it does little to clear the already existing clouds.

On July 11th, 68 immigrant detainees being held in two maximum security prisons (one in Toronto) began a hunger strike in an attempt to meet with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and discuss ending the practice of indefinite immigrant detainment in maximum security prisons.

This would not be the first time immigrant detainees have been under hunger strikes to try to make changes. On September 16, 2013 191 migrant detainees began a hunger strike, protesting indefinite detainment. Nothing came of it. In April of this year, detainees went on a hunger strike for the same reason.

Their demands have been simple. They have been shouting them for almost 3 years. But they have still not been properly heard.

Their first demand is freedom for those detained over 90 days.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), passed in 2001, stipulates that the grounds for detention of immigrants are if such person is a flight risk, does not provide adequate identification, or is considered a danger to public safety (this could be something as small as reckless driving). Detainment is not meant as punishment, nor should it be perceivably the same thing. These immigrant detainees are not criminals. They are people who are in the midst of removal from Canada, for a litany of reasons (none criminal, most of which are arbitrary and without definition). If their removal takes longer than expected, they continue to be jailed. Some for as long as a decade.

Their second demand is to implement a 90 day presumptive period, during which time detainees must be removed from the country. This places an end date to what is currently an indefinite holding time. After these 90 days, those detained must be released. This would prevent the government from shirking its responsibility to remove migrants efficiently, and insure that detainees need not sit in an infinite purgatory. This is a policy recommended by the UN, and is law for both the United States and the European Union.

If being held indefinitely wasn’t bad enough, many of these detainees are serving time in provincial maximum security prisons. This is the third demand: to end holding in these maximum security prisons. Prisoners come to be held in maximum security because Canada only has 3 immigration detention centers, one of which is in Toronto. Who ends up in maximum security is completely arbitrary. No matter where they are being held, though, conditions are continually abysmal. Since 2000, 16 detainees have died under the CBSA, 8 in maximum security prisons. Two of these deaths happened in the same week this March. The Toronto detention center has been described as “Kafkaesque”. Inmates may only see visitors through a glass partition. In times of overcrowding, detainees have been left without beds. It does not have any mental health services. If a person has mental health problems, they might be placed in provincial prison under solitary confinement.

As Toby Clark, detainee since August 2014, put it “To me, the way immigration detention is right now, it’s cruel and unusual punishment.”

And, it is punishment from which the detainees have no legal recourse. In 2013 alone over 7300 migrants were detained without charges or trial. If they do get the opportunity to have themselves heard, it is before Board Members, who have no legal training and no judicial oversight. The rate of decision to release detainees ranges from 9% (in Ontario) to 25% (in the rest of Canada).

94% of immigrant detainees are not detained as a security risk. Most are refugees who were denied, migrants with expired work visas, or students who overstayed their abroad study permit.

Throwing these people into maximum security prisons for an indefinite period of time, without any legal appeal process is treatment we would not invoke on criminals (who actually pose security threats). To treat immigrants in this way is not to treat them as criminals. It is to treat them as below criminals. If we have learned anything from this past year, it must be that treating immigrants as criminals is never permissible. It is dangerous. It is inhumane. It reduces immigrants to a threat. It breeds the nationalist, anti-immigration hurricane we had hoped Trudeau was opposed to.

Click here for more information on the strike and how to help.

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