Two people died in Canadian immigration detention within a week this month, sparking outrage and fueling activists’ demands for the government to overhaul immigration policy and put an end to indefinite immigration detention violating the rights and safety of migrants.
Francisco Javier Romero Astorga died from unknown causes while being held by federal immigration authorities on March 13. His death was less than a week after Melkioro Gahungu committed suicide in a detention center in Toronto on March 7.
Migrant justice groups, which organized a vigil for the two men earlier this week, have pointed to Canada’s immigration detention system as ultimately responsible for these deaths and other similar cases in the past decade and a half.
“We’re essentially calling for an end to the detention system as it exists,” Syed Hussan, a member of No One Is Illegal Toronto, told teleSUR by phone on Thursday. “Because it is one of the few places in the world where we have indefinite detention, we have people held in maximum security prisons, there is absolutely no access to the courts.”
An online petition has also been launched to demand an end to arbitrary and indefinite detention, along with other changes.
Migrant justice advocates have documented a total of 14 deaths in CBSA custody since 2000, over half of which were due to lack of adequate medical care for detainees and three of which were suicides.
Both men this month died in provincial detention centers in the province of Ontario.
Gahungu, a Burundian refugee with a criminal record, had a history of mental health issues. He was facing deportation to Burundi despite the fact that Canada has a moratorium on deportation to the country because of violence. The 64-year-old reportedly did not understand the process or what was happening to him and hung himself in his cell.
Hussan argued that Gahungu’s case is an example of what migrant justice advocates call “double punishment.” Though he was convicted and served time in the criminal justice system, the government also had the power to revoke his refugee status and deport him.
Fewer details about Romero’s case are available, and the circumstances around the Chilean migrant’s death remain unclear.
Hussan explained that immigration detention is “preventative prison” based on authorities’ suspicions that the person will not show up to be deported. The Canadian Border Services Agency uses provincial high-security prisons for so-called higher-risk immigration detainees based on officers’ suspicions and discretion. He stressed that the system is arbitrary.
“There is no hearing, no appeals process, no decision-making structure that determines why you end up in a provisional prison,” he said. “It’s up to the individual officer.”
Migrant detention is often a “first resort” in Canada, the only western country with a policy of indefinite immigration detention, according to No One Is Illegal. Migrant justice advocates argue that Canada is failing to live up to international legal norms that dictate immigration detention should always be a last resort.
The two deaths recall the memory of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican migrant who committed suicide in CBSA detention pending deportation in 2013 after being picked up by Vancouver Transit Police over an unpaid bus fare. The Coroner’s Inquest into her death revealed that transit officers, who handed her over to immigration authorities, had racially profiled her.
Jimenez, whose death sparked widespread outrage over inhumane treatment of migrants, feared deportation due to uncertain violence she expected to face in her own home in her native Mexico.
It remains unclear whether there will be a coroner's inquest into Romero and Guhungu’s deaths. Activists are still waiting for calls to be answered for an inquest into the death of Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, who died in detention in June 2015 after being restrained by prison guards.
But Hussan stressed that the responsibility falls on the federal government to act. Investigations have already yielded recommendations that have not been followed, and what’s needed now is fundamental change at a policy level to address underlying problems in the system.
“People are dying. This is a crisis,” he said. “We don’t need more recommendations, more consultations, we simply need Canada to follow international law.”
“Immigration detention should be the last resort,” he added. “People should not be kept in maximum security prisons.”
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has attracted high-profile attention for welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, his government has a long way to go to meet activists’ demands of undoing decades of discrimination and unjust immigration policy. While the government has gestured toward some reforms, including possible oversight for the CBSA, indefinite detention still remains a cornerstone of the country’s border control regime.
Hussan agreed that oversight would be a welcome step, but that the focus must continue to be on demanding deeper structural changes and a guarantee that there will not be more deaths in immigration detention.
“The priority is for the for federal politicians to act,” he said. “We expect governments to not kill people.”
Hussan warned that the international community should wait and see when it comes to the Trudeau government’s policies, because despite worldwide praise for the prime minister’s progressive speeches, the Liberal government has yet to fully deliver on progressive promises on immigration, environmental issues, and Indigenous relations, among other policies.
“It’s the responsibility of the government to prove themselves,” he said. “The world shouldn't just be giving accolades based rhetoric.”
Canada is a rogue nation when it comes to indefinite immigration detention. The United States and European Union have laws limiting detention periods, and limits are also recommended by the United Nations.
Between 2006 and 2014, under the Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada jailed over 87,000 immigrants without charge or trial, according to the End Immigration Detention Network.
An online petition is calling for freedom for wrongly jailed migrants, an end to indefinite detention, an end to maximum security holds, and fair access to legal aid for migrants facing deportation.