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“We are zombies”

Sam Neylon delves into the brutal reality of Canada’s immigration system

“Mentally, this country breaks us,” says Arash Aslani, an Iranian who was detained at Laval’s Canadian Immigration Prevention Center for 11 consecutive months in 2004-2005.

Aslani arrived in Canada by boat in 2004, after he had been imprisoned and tortured in Iran for two years. “In jail I mean I was about two years and half I was under torture in Iran, so, I mean about 35 per cent of my body I lost it.”

His detention ended in a hunger strike, beginning on August 22, 2005. For 31 days Aslani consumed only water.

Although his stay in detention and his resistance were extraordinary (most are only detained for one to three months), what he spoke about was the way the system works people over. For him and many others, this is what it means to become Canadian.

Although the system is ostensibly about protecting Canadian society – about security – from the inside it appears as a series of filters. It didn’t seem like these barriers were filtering out “security threats” – Aslani said those interrogating him seemed to know nothing of Middle Eastern politics. Rather, they tend to ensnare those who want to “rock the boat” – fight for democracy in their home country, pursue their education, find a good job.

“They teach us, the first step is that they are better than us,” says Aslani. “Political refugee means a person who has enough balls to fight with the dictator in their country. Most of them are educated, most of them are very brave.”

The barriers to gaining status, Aslani said, give way once frustration sets in, once people acquiesce to the quotidian control that comes with the system of detention.

Action Réfugiés is an organization that, for twenty years, has visited the immigrant detention centre and tried to give moral and legal support to those on the inside. They wouldn’t allow any of the refugees they are in contact with to be interviewed, fearing for their refugee claim proceedings.
This is why you can call it a system, a regime. It is not mistreatment by a particular agency, a hidden experience of brutality that must be exposed. Rather, it teaches people to exist a certain way – docile, and in fear. This way of being reaches beyond the detention centre, beyond those deported back to their home countries. It follows immigrants around, making sure they check in every week. It looks at them suspiciously on the metro, and walking down the street at night. It comes between them and their landlords or their bosses, creating fear of speaking out about mistreatment. It ensures that things run smoothly.

Detained upon arrival

In the naming of the Laval centre, “detention” becomes “prevention.” What were called “deportations” are now called “removals,” and those that will not be staying in Canada, those that are subject to “immigration prevention” and “removal orders,” are called “inadmissible.”

Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) was passed on November 1, 2001, in the wake of 9/11. It is the primary legislation currently guiding Federal immigration policy.

The Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) manual for enforcement officers, stipulates that the power to detain permanent residents and foreign nationals meet the objectives of the IRPA by “protecting Canadian society.”
People are detained either because border officers aren’t sure of their identity, their documents are insufficient, they are a “flight risk,” or they are a “threat to security.” Those who are arrested at the port of entry – arriving by ship, car, bus, or plane – are treated, in Aslani’s words, as “absolutely criminal.”

“It’s like the Hollywood movies,” he says. “In the Hollywood movies, what they do with the criminals – like with the psycho criminals. Where there are very calm people but they put the chain on their hand, on their neck. … They act like that with us.”

For many years, those who were able to get past the border with the documents they had were not detained, even after presenting themselves to the authorities. At some indeterminable point in the last few years, increasing numbers of migrants began to be detained even after successfully entering Canada.

“If you are not that good, if your passport is not good, if you didn’t pay enough to the smuggler, and your passport is false then you have to go to detention: this is the first punishment,” Aslani said.

On the streets

Sarita Ahooja is a local activist, and a founding member of Montreal’s Anti-Capitalist Convergence, which was formed back in 2000 to build a resistance movement against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. She is also a founding member of No One Is Illegal, and part of the Solidarity Across Borders network, connecting several different organizations, refugees, and immigrants who are fighting against deportations and for status for all.

Beyond that moment at the border, detention and deportation reach into communities – seeking out those with precarious status, those that might be “flight risks,” dangerous to the public. Ahooja has a lot of stories about those who are swept up in Canada’s immigration regime like this.

One woman in her community was detained after being robbed. When the cops showed up at her place and found that she was undocumented, they took her in. (She had been underground for eight years, but with the help of activists, was able to secure a work permit.) “They don’t care about the robber. Next thing we know she’s deported back to Bangladesh,” said Ahooja.

Racial profiling by Montreal police also sweeps people into the system. Ahooja recounted the story of a Latino youth who was deported after his ID was checked arbitrarily at a metro station.

Be they non-status migrants living underground, or permanent residents who have lived here for several years, anyone in this vast space of liminality can be arrested and deported with little more than a removal order from the Canadian Border Services Agency.

Another man Ahooja knows, who was originally from Algeria, was stopped by police one night while walking through Outrement. “Apparently there’s a rule that Algerians or Arabs can’t walk in Outremont. So he’s stopped – he’s taken in, he got accused of uttering death threats. So then he had a criminal record,” she says. “For some time he was barred and he was going to be deported, because if you get a criminal record here – it’s like one strike you’re out.”

In detention

For Aslani, once in detention, you lose your humanity.
“I was 205 Delta,” he says.

Time and space in the detention center are strictly regimented; those detained are shuffled from one event to the next.

“Food is always on time, medication on time, doctor on time, sleep on time.”
Every morning, they would wake up at 6 a.m. The officers would walk down the corridors, going to each door in order, each room occupied by five or six detainees. Security would kick the door until everyone inside was awake: “Pow pow pow – Wake up! It was like the military.”

Fifteen detainees at a time would be given ten minutes to shower and shave and go to the bathroom. If they took longer than ten minutes they would be escorted back to their cells.

The officers would bring them razors, and once they were done shaving, they would take the razors back – in order to minimize suicide attempts.
While shaving, officers would stand within an inch of the detainees’ faces. “205 Delta, shave.”

By 6:30, all the detainees would be moved into the waiting room – “Everybody in the waiting room – they lock the door.”
After the detainees had sat, waiting, the guards would start yelling – breakfast is ready.

“They talk about the breakfast like the breakfast is the most beautiful thing,” says Aslani. “You just want to go have breakfast, and you start thinking, ‘Oh my god – if [the officers] were not here we wouldn’t have anything to eat!’”
They line up the detainees, 15 by 15, to get into the cafeteria.

“Mentally it makes you sick. Everything routine.” But, he says, “You cannot, we have expression, you cannot swim against the river.”

The security guard lines up 15 in a straight line. “Fifteen here!”

“They talk in their walkie-talkies, like a Hollywood movie, like a kid.”

One guard will speak to another across the room into their walkie-talkie: “Fifteen is okay?” – “You are ready?” – “Yes, ready.” – “Okay open the door.” The detainees begin walking through the passage: “Un, deux, trois…”
As the detainees wait in line, some of them sit on the ground to rest: “NO! No sir! Don’t sit!”

Aslani waits in line at 6:30 a.m. “Goddammit I just want to eat something, fuck!”

It’s 7 a.m. Breakfast has finished, the detainees have been filed back into the waiting room. Security officers ring the entire perimeter of the room, guarding 100 detainees.

“And then you sit there… You have to sit until 11 – lunch time.”

One of the detainees’ heads begins to nod over and rest on their shoulder: “Sir, you are not allowed to do that.”

Another detainee folds their arms and rests their head in front of them: “Sir, you are not allowed to do that.”

Someone puts their feet up on an empty chair near them: “Sir, you are not allowed to do that.”

11 a.m. “Lunch time!”

“Oh my god, beautiful things happen! The world is exciting!” says Aslani in his ironic, theatrical manner.

Fifteen by fifteen.

“The food is absolutely jelly food, but thank God.”

Eat it, and then go sit – until 4:30.

There is a courtyard the guards sometimes open. The detainees are allowed to go outside and walk.

“You cannot run, you cannot exercise, because you might bump into somebody else – you just walk. And for every two people – one security.”
They are led inside, and there is a TV room with videos – in English and French.

“There are about seven movies,” he says. “Sixty-two times I watched Gladiator.”

The detainees were lined up and counted three times a day.
“It was the most fun ever.”

The guards would line up the detainees and begin to count, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” One of the detainees was not looking at the officer, so the officer starts over.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…” One of the detainees coughs, and the count starts from the beginning again.
“Maybe for two hours they would count us.”


Every morning, detainees are brought either to CIC’s offices at 1010 Saint-Antoine Ouest for questioning, or to court. The officers are given a list of names – some are going to Immigration, others to court.

(Since Aslani’s time in detention, the facility has changed from being run by CBSA officers to having guards from the private security company Garda.)
While all the detainees wait in line for breakfast, the names are called out.

Someone forgets their papers in their cell. A guard is called via walkie-talkie to escort the detainee to their room. Everyone waits.

“This slowly gets under your skin. You hate yourself in front of the mirror. You hate everything,” says Aslani. “They play with your brain till you are ready to accept.”

The detainees going to 1010 or to court are brought into another room. The officers put handcuffs on the detainees one at a time. Another officer walks down the line, shaking the handcuffs, testing them. The first officer walks down the line again, grabbing the handcuffs and shaking them harshly – testing them again. Another officer walks down the line, connecting all the handcuffs to the same chain – and tests it again.

The detainees are then led into the back of a van. A metal barrier separates them from the drivers, and the door is locked. The van then drives from the Detention Centre in its desolate corner of eastern Laval into downtown Montreal.

Aslani described seeing the world through the small window in the back of the van.

“When you come out, it’s a miracle. It’s the most beautiful thing – you see kids, you see colour: red, green, blue. You see old women. You see people, and you start to cry. When am I going to be there?”

The detainees are filed out of the van and into a waiting room at 1010, where they wait to be interrogated, one by one, by an immigration officer.

Inside the interrogation room, the officer puts Aslani’s file on the table and taps it with his finger: “Write where you were,” taps the file again, “No lies!” This is how the questioning process begins.

Aslani requests a translator. The officer responds, “We know that you know English, and that you know perfect French. Shut up, you don’t need a translator.”

The officer continues with the interrogation: “We found your fingerprints, we know you were in Saudi Arabia. What were you doing over there?”
Aslani, in fact, has never been to Saudi Arabia. It’s clear, he says, that the officer knows this too.

“I swear to you! No Saudi Arabia!”

The CIC’s enforcement manual elucidates their interrogation strategy.

“Instability of the person associated with mental imbalance at the time of the examination may be a very important indicator in the assessment of the danger, and may point to future violent behaviour.”

This aggressive questioning, Ahooja explains, is systematic.

“They really try to crack people, make them have some kind of crisis or some kind of violent reaction which then gives them a pretext to deem them ‘inadmissible.’ And then we don’t have to deal with them at all,” says Ahooja.
“You’re being questioned about your story, again and again. Canada has a crown commissioner on the other side who is continually trying to trap you into somehow proving that you’ve lied. Detailed questions. ‘Do you remember where you lived three years ago – the address and the postal code?’ ‘Can you say it right now?’ ‘In October, 2005, where did you live?’”
Phrases like “I think” are taken to mean the detainee is lying.

“They try to provoke you, they keep asking you questions to see if you’ll slip and change your story,” says Ahooja. “If someone violently reacted and was indignant about this poking and provoking, they’d get deported right away.”
As detainees are released, or their friends and family interrogated, the effects of questioning spread to the community.

“Within the community it is taboo to talk about ‘Oh, there is a deportation facing you.’ It’s blaming the victim, so that’s what communities start doing,” says Ahooja.

“There is an internalization of the criminalization, who’s good? Who’s bad? So then I want to be really good, and you don’t even defend your minimal rights in the workplace, in your house, in your apartment.

“So you live in abominable conditions because you’re so worried about not rocking the boat. In this neighbourhood, people live in apartments that are horrible – you’ve got mice infestation, cockroach infestation, typical ghetto situation – molding roofs, infiltration of water, holes in the door, air coming in, no Hydro – but people don’t say anything. You don’t want to rock the boat, you don’t want to have trouble, potentially the cops coming in, checking your immigration, and then,” she snaps, “you’re in detention.”

Women and Children

Women and children, and the elderly are also held in the Laval Detention Centre.

The CIC’s manual stipulates that “it is affirmed as a principle that a minor child shall be detained only as a measure of last resort.”

According to Ahooja, minors are treated much less delicately.

“We had a case where six kids were detained,” she says. “Two year-old, five year-old, six year-old, eight year-old, and seventeen year-old.” She adds that CBSA officers raided the family’s apartment at night, when both parents were at work.

The medical services provided in detention, according to Aslani, focus on getting the detainees to sleep.

“If the doctor writes ‘ten [sleeping] pills,’ you don’t have any choice to take them – the nurse is going to put them in your mouth.”

When detainees need medical services outside the Centre, they are never let off their chain. Those taken to the hospital, including pregnant women, are handcuffed to their beds.

In court

Detainees are brought to two different courtrooms. One is a “detention review,” where the decision is made to release the detainee under certain conditions, or keep them in detention. The other is refugee court, where a decision is made as to whether the person can stay in Canada, or be subject to “removal.”

In order to keep someone detained, they must be brought before a court for a “detention review” after the first 48 hours, then seven days, and then every thirty days.

At a detention hearing there are two adversarial parties, the person who is being detained and the Minister’s counsel for the CBSA. Presiding over the court is a “member,” not a judge, from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB).

During his 11-month detention, Aslani was in and out of detention court many times. These kinds of hearings seldom accomplish anything beyond maintaining the legal basis for detention.

At one of his refugee hearings, Aslani’s first lawyer sat beside him in court for five hours, not speaking, and then told the judge, “He’s a good boy.”
Aslani compared his time in Canadian court to Iran. In Iran’s military court, Aslani was given a lawyer who didn’t even have a high school diploma.
“For people like us, people fighting in third-world countries – we’re fighting for democracy right? We believe that in Europe and North America at least they know something about democracy. For us it’s important, like a movie you desire to watch.”

After his experience with these courts, Aslani said, “Oh, this is democracy! That’s cute. We’re not that different. Same shit.”

For him, the power dynamic in the courtroom was a big reason he was stuck in limbo. As he explained, the IRB official presiding over the hearing was often younger than the CBSA counsel in charge of his case.

At first, Aslani was detained for identity reasons. Then, they might say something like, “we need another month, we need to translate some documents.” The fact that Aslani had already been detained was an argument, in the member’s mind, that he should be detained further.
As the CBSA counsel would lay out reasons to detain Aslani further, they would end by telling the member that “it was their decision.” Afraid of bringing some unknown horrors down on their head, signing Aslani into further detention made a lot of sense.

A trip through Europe

As Aslani and his “big mouth” were sent back to detention month after month, the reasons for his detention began to centre around his time attempting to pass through what some call Fortress Europe – a continent which has become concomitantly more open for those with EU passports, while becoming more fortified against those people Europe does not want moving freely. What is striking about the Canadian authorities’ suspicion of Aslani’s route through Europe – using false documents and being detained for it – is how typical this experience is.

The member presiding over the courtroom told Aslani that he was suspicious because he had access to false documents in Europe.

“Europe is amazing,” says. “In Amsterdam, you can buy a passport for 60 Euros, maybe 100 Euros.”

Aslani explains how the only way to travel from country to country is through smugglers. “You don’t have any choice – you have to do that!” If the passport he got was bad, he would be detained in the next country he went to. He’d go to jail, and then be released.

“So you’re coming out, you lost your money, you lost your time, you were in jail. You work in an apple orchard, you make money – 5 Euros per hour. Again and again you don’t eat anything – you keep [your earnings]. Another, stupid, nasty smuggler, you pay – passport – you go, you travel, they arrest you and put you in jail again you lose your money.”

Arash’s experience, he says, is not uncommon for migrants to Canada.
“This is the last hope, this country.”

Fewer refugees

Within the framework of this system, there are many pressure points. If the government wanted to, say, reduce dramatically the number of refugees coming into, and being admitted into Canada, they could change the law. But at every step in this process, the way officials interact with people is a place where immigration policy can unfold – where people can be squeezed out, frustrated into changing their lives to fit the government’s narrative.

The CBSA released an evaluation of their Detentions and Removals Programs on January 31, 2011. The problem areas, for them, were reducing costs, reducing inconsistencies in the application of detention and removal policies, and carrying out removals more “efficiently.”

Bill C-49, the “Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act,” is one of those legal changes. The legislation was first introduced by the Conservative government in October, and is now in its second reading in Parliament. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, the bill could bring even more enforcement, detention, and discriminatory filtering into the lives of those caught up in this system.
Another legislative change, Bill C-11, was passed last June, and is expected to be implemented as of early 2012.  Annick Legault, Aslani’s second attorney, is not optimistic about the new system.

“It’s absolutely hell. The whole idea is to be able to kick someone out of the country within a year.”

This acceleration of the deportation process takes place at several levels. In the new system, several steps that were done through a lawyer will now be done through an officer. Another important step is making more distinctions between “safe countries” and “unsafe countries,” or even parts of countries will be deemed “unsafe.”

This creates big problems with countries like Mexico or Israel, where, even though they are regarded by Canada as liberal democracies, persecution exists for large parts of the population.

These distinctions, Legault insists, destroy any illusion of due process. “You’re going to be able to apprehend losing.”

“It’s not normal when you’re going to court, you’re supposed to feel like there’s someone to listen, a due process, that everyone’s impartial, no one’s going to be pressured to render a negative decision – which – even if it’s not the truth now, it’s still supposed to give that impression. Whereas that new system doesn’t even give the impression.”

The last two forms of legal recourse that those with removal orders have are currently the Pre-removal risk assessment (PRA), and the Humanitarian and compassionate claim for permanent residence (H&C). The PRA is supposed to determine if the person to be deported will suffer torture or even death upon removal to their home country. The H&C is a statement claiming connections to the community in Canada, and requesting permanent residence because they have built a life here.

Ahooja explained that for a few years now, the PRA has seemed like a formality, with almost every applicant being rejected. What is new, however, has been an increase in the PRA and H&C being decided at the same time. The problem here is that there are supposed to be two different organizations, the CBSA and CIC, and thus two different perspectives – one based on security and one based on community, making this decision.
According to Ahooja, the frustration this intransigence, this series of dead-ends, can create is very powerful.

“They realize at some point they might never be able to be heard or understood,” she says. “And that the person in front of them who has the power to decide over their life doesn’t give a shit about them. Some people would rather take their lives here and not be deported back to what awaits them.”

Hunger Strike

After seven months of going to detention reviews and a refugee hearing, Aslani found out he was not going to get refugee status, and would be kept in detention until his deportation.

It was a week before the guards realized Aslani hadn’t been eating. Every time he refused a meal, a yellow slip would go in his folder. Eventually, a guard realized that his folder was overflowing with yellow slips.

“It doesn’t show how strong I am, it shows how frustrated I was. I was feeling that I was going to die, and I was ready for that.”

Aslani sat in his bed everyday, watched by two guards.

Maurizio Mannarino, then director of the detention centre, eventually confronted Aslani.

“The director came and said you are not allowed to [hunger strike]. I remember the director told me, ‘Here is Canada, here is not your country, where you can do anything you want.”

The doctor at the centre tried to sneak some chocolate to Aslani: “Eat this, I won’t tell anybody. At least keep your energy.”

Aslani responded that “I want to die, finish. I want to show the world that Canada is not that country they think – at least I can do that.”

Other detainees began hunger strikes in support of Aslani.

One of the other detainees, a friend of Aslani’s, sent a fax to the Red Cross. A piece was published in the Montreal Gazette, and a few Iranian newspapers picked up the story. At his next detention review, a crowd of supporters filled the gallery.

Other detainees were inspired by Aslani to hunger strike in solidarity.
Aslani credits his eventual release to his new lawyer – Annick Legault. Aslani was released on $15,000 bail and condition that he report to 1010 Saint-Antoine Ouest every week. He did so every Tuesday from September 2005 until January 2011, until his lawyer sent a request and he was able to stop.
“If you miss it, the next day, they’re at your house – they arrest you, you’re in detention, forget about it,” says Aslani, who spent that time working, making the various appeals, fighting off a deportation order, marrying, and starting a family in Canada.

“Monday to Friday, working, Saturday and Sunday go to Casino. I know that I’m not one of the Canadian guys… I’m the stranger forever.”

Acceptance into Canada, he says, has broken his will.

“When you are absolutely frustrated and disappointed, you say ‘so what, fuck that.’ then you are welcome. But if you have something to say, or you are creative, or you are a fighter, they don’t like it: ‘calm down, calm down’” says Aslani.

“We are all zombies. I’m saying if we are like that, it’s not because we are bad people. It’s because of what happened to us. This is what they want. They don’t listen to news, when the news is talking, they’re washing dishes.