Two new reports released last month from the University of Toronto and the End Immigration Detention Network detail the systemic flaws and inhumane treatment of immigration detainees, dubbing the entire system a “legal black hole.” On top of that, Abdurahman “Abdi” Ibrahim Hassan died in custody on June 11 after being restrained by prison guards. His is the 12th reported death in immigration custody in the past decade. Now, the End Immigration Detention Network is calling for change.
“We really shy away from calling this a broken immigration system or a broken detention system because it’s very clear that the system is functioning as it’s supposed to be,” said Tings Chak, an advocate with No One Is Illegal. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) outlines the reasons it detains undocumented persons here. Some of the reasons they list include: the CBSA can’t establish a person’s identity, the CBSA deems a person a danger to the public or the CBSA deems a person a “flight risk” that is, the CBSA believes they may not show up for a deportation hearing.
Canada has three dedicated immigration holding centres, one in Laval, Quebec, one in Toronto and one in Vancouver. However, one third of immigration detainees are not held in the IHCs but are kept, instead, in prisons. “In 2013, over 7,370 migrants were detained in Canada. Approximately 30 per cent of all detentions occurred in a facility intended for a criminal population,” reads the report from the U of T faculty of law International Human Rights Program. “It creates problems for people who ought not to be mixed with dangerous prison populations and violent offenders, when their only offense is under the immigration act,” said Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer.
The report says the treatment of undocumented people is sometimes called “crimmigation” by experts and advocates. The report from the End Immigration Detention Network likens breaking immigration law to not paying a parking ticket, but that undocumented persons detained by the CBSA are held without charges or trial. “They’re held for administrative purposes, even though they’re put into prison,” said Chak. This was the case for Abdi Hassan. The 39-year-old Somali man had been held in immigration detention for three years at the Central East Correctional Centre — a maximum-security prison in Lindsay, Ontario.
That correctional centre was also the site of a historic hunger strike by detainees in 2013, demanding a 90 day limit on their detention, and an end to maximum-security incarceration Hassan suffered from diabetes as well as mental health issues, said Chak. He was admitted to the Peterborough Regional Health Centre for “medical reasons,” according to a news release from the Ontario Special Investigations Unit. At around 1:00 a.m. on June 11, the news release states, Hassan became “agitated.” “At the request of medical staff, he was restrained by the officers and by health professionals,” the release reads. “Shortly after, the man went vital signs absent and was subsequently pronounced dead,” it continues. Chak said she holds both the CBSA and the province responsible for Hassan’s death while in custody.
“What we’d like to know is why Ontario prisons are being used to detain these people in the first place,” she said. The CBSA is also notoriously secretive when it comes to deaths in immigration custody. They did not identify Hassan when they released information about a death in custody. Similarly, in 2013, the CBSA did not reveal that Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican national, hung herself while awaiting deportation in 2013. “When we woke up [on June 12] they told us Hassan died from a stroke. A newspaper said he was being restrained and died. We’re wondering who’s next. Am I next?” said T.R., a 27 year old father who is also incarcerated at Central East Correctional Centre in a press release.
The report from the University of Toronto addresses the effect of the immigration detention system on the mental health of the people being held. “Perhaps most distressing, however, is the utter despair that this regime produces among detainees held in provincial jails. Each of the immigration detainees we met with communicated incredible hopelessness,” reads the report. This hopelessness stems, in part, from the indefinite nature of immigration detention in Canada. “We’re one of the few Western nations that doesn’t have a maximum length for detention,” said Chak. “It means that some people we work with have been in detention for 10, 12 years without charges, without trial. They are just stuck in there because Canada can’t deport them.”
“CBSA’s inability to arrange for detainees’ removal is often the main cause of extremely lengthy detention cases,” according to the U of T IHRP report. The United Nations human rights body slammed Canada’s immigration detention system in 2014 and urged the country to adopt a 90-day limit on immigration detention. Chak’s organization is advocating for the same time limit. Under the current system, detainees have an opportunity for release every 30 days via a detention review. But in practice, these reviews do not often lead to release. “Every time I go there it’s like they have already made up their minds before we even start the session. It doesn’t matter what I say, I am there only for a few minutes before they state that I a flight risk and to come back in 30 days. I’ve been in front of them 12 times and nothing is changing and I am tired of it,” says E.K., a detainee quoted in the End Immigration Detention Network’s report. Kurland, however, said board members release people from detention when they can.
“The members truly apply the appropriate burden which is opposed to detention,” he said. The average national release rate after a hearing is low — 15 per cent. But rates vary widely depending on which board member is present for a detainee’s review. For example, Valerie Curie released only 21 of the 443 detained migrants she ruled on (five per cent) but Maria Louise Cote released 100 of the 303 detention reviews she saw (33 per cent). Detainees in Ontario have the lowest chance of release. Central Canada (Ontario except for Ottawa and Kingston) has a release rate of only nine per cent. What’s more, the likelihood of release decreases the longer a detainee is incarcerated. “Once you have been detained past six months, your chances of release fall close to zero,” the End Immigration Detention Network’s report finds. The CBSA has no oversight body or watchdog, said Chak. “It’s clear that the system is very much stacked against detainees,” she said. “Putting people into jail makes it a lot harder to even try to access the immigration system as it is.” The U of T report contains an even more urgent call to action. “If Canada does not act quickly to reform the immigration detention system, more people will die in detention,” it reads.