200 immigration detainees are calling for justice, striking over prison conditions, and asking for better access to medical care, social services, food, and legal aid. The strike, which began September 17, was largely provoked by a prison transfer that resulted in limited services and decreased accessibility for detainees.
In August, the detainees were moved from prisons in the Greater Toronto area to Ontario’s Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) in Lindsay, Ontario, in light of the upcoming closure of the Toronto West Detention Centre.
“We’re talking about a mass civil disobedience action within prison cells,” Jaggi Singh, an activist with No One Is Illegal Montreal, told The Daily. “This is very significant. These are people who are in a very precarious situation, who might not get support from wide sections of society.”
Conditions at Ontario’s Central East Correctional Centre
The migrant detainees were moved in two batches from Toronto to the CECC in Lindsay, Ontario, according to Emelina Ramos, an activist with Toronto-based migrant justice group Fuerza/Puwersa. While the Toronto West Detention Centre is a low-security public prison, the CECC is a high-security private prison.
“There’s been a lot of wondering as to why the detainees were moved to a private prison,” Ramos told The Daily.
As a private prison, CECC offers fewer classes and life skills programs than the Toronto West Detention Centre. According to Ramos, these programs are crucial for many detainees.
The transfer of prisoners from Toronto to Lindsay also means that prisoners are now two hours away from essential services such as legal resources, social services, and for some, their families.
One of the prisoners, Jalal Joshton, is originally from Iraq. He has lived in Canada for 16 years, and has been detained for seven. For Joshton, the move meant that he was cut off from his family.
“I can’t even see my son. Windsor is six hours away [from Lindsay]. [My family doesn’t] have the money to come all the way down here – my wife and son are on welfare,” Joshton told The Daily in an interview. “I haven’t seen my son in seven years – he was 14 months and now he is eight years old.”
“I’m suffering here, I’m suffering. In my country they don’t let you suffer, they shoot you and you’re done. Here, they make you die very slowly.”
A major issue with the transfer has also been access to phone calls. Detainees are not given access to making international and long-distance phone calls, according to Ramos, and local calls have been consistently dropping.
Erik Kusi, a current detainee, told The Daily that the inconsistency with the phone service has strained the detainees’ communications with lawyers and families. Kusi is a permanent resident of Canada. He arrived as a refugee from Liberia, and was detained due to a prior conviction. Before his detention, Kusi was two years away from being eligible to apply for citizenship.
“Their [CECC] phone systems cannot get ahold of our lawyers and families because supposedly their phone system […] is very sensitive,” said Kusi. “You cannot make 20 minute phone calls without the phone cutting off. The phone systems are most important to access our lawyers and our family members. This is [one of] the demands we’re striking for.”
Access to medical services and social workers have been limited since the transfer as well.
“There is no social worker. They say they are going to get a social worker but there is no social worker yet. They hired one, but she hasn’t [seen] anyone yet. The situation, if they are making money off of me or what, I have no idea, they must be making money. Three years of my life, and next to [no changes],” said Joshton.
Detention in Canada for non-status people
A joint statement on the issue was released on September 23 by Books to Bars Hamilton, Dignidad Migrante, Fuerza/Puwersa, No One Is Illegal Montreal, No One Is Illegal Vancouver, and Solidarity Across Borders Montreal.
Over the past ten years, according to the statement, the number of people without full status – including temporary workers and refugees – has risen to 60 per cent, and yet the number of permanent residency visas granted is the same. Less than 25 per cent of refugee claimants are accepted.
Approximately 82,000 migrant people have been detained in Canada since 2004, and 25,000 have been imprisoned, according to the statement. One third of detainees are held in maximum-security provincial prisons.
In 2012, Canada passed Bill C-31, which amended the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The Justice for Refugees and Immigrants Coalition – comprised of groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International – argued that the bill works to arbitrarily detain groups of refugees, and has too much power to deem those who hope to escape violence and persecution in their home country as illegal.
The amendments gave the state “broad, unfettered, and unprecedented powers,” according to a press release by the Coalition. Provisions in the bill allow the government to “arbitrarily detain groups of refugees; keep parents, children and spouses apart for years; […] and authorize the stripping of permanent residence from refugees.”
There are many reasons why non-status people can be detained, according to Ramos, including but not limited to: not having the correct travel documents, an inability to be deported because their home country will not take them, or having prior convictions.
“We should be aware of the reality of the immigration detention and the injustice of it. We aren’t [necessarily] talking about people who are being detained for being convicted of a criminal offense. These are people in administrative categories – that is, they haven’t necessarily committed a crime, their only ‘crime’ is to have been a migrant. So it’s particularly insidious that detention is being used against people,” said Singh.
“The system is flawed, it’s not working,” said Ramos. “Some people who have prior convictions, their convictions are completely bogus in our courts. For example, in countries where it is illegal to be gay, and you have a conviction for it – you could come here and all the government of Canada sees is that you have a prior conviction and so you get detained.”
Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, which limit detention of immigration detainees to 90 days, Canada does not have a limit to how long people can be detained.
While immigration detainees are supposed to undergo a monthly detention review, at CECC, their isolation from lawyers has impeded progress on their cases.
“Some of these individuals have been held in detention for ten years and they’re not being told when they’re going to be released because Canada doesn’t want to release them in their own community,” said Ramos. “In some cases, their home country doesn’t want to take them either – and [so] they’re stuck.”
The majority of migrant detainees at the CECC come from African countries and the Middle East, according to Ramos, and there are no European migrants currently detained.
Strike actions and response
On September 17, the detainees led a walkout where they left and refused to re-enter their cells. The detainees were forcefully put back into their cells by the guards, according to Ramos.
On September 18, detainees held a hunger strike that lasted 24 hours. A second hunger strike started on September 23, and lasted the subsequent 11 days. At least six detainees were reported hospitalized during the hunger strike.
“[People are feeling] frustration, headaches, anger, and other stuff too,” said Kusi, who went on hunger strike. “There is [a lot of] yelling going around. It’s just getting people stressed out. I’m getting frustrated myself.”
The CECC responded to the strike by enforcing lockdowns, Ramos told The Daily, where detainees are not allowed to leave their cells for extended periods of time – even up to 18 hours a day. Certain detainees were put into segregation. According to Ramos, the communication between the CECC and the detainees has been limited, and only furthered frustrations.
“The warden has told them he was going to make the canteen better, which he did. But he also told them they would get a better phone line, but calls continue to drop and are fuzzy. They hired a social worker, but she has yet to show up. The relationship [between the detainees and CECC] has not been very good at all,” said Ramos.
As for a response to better health services, Ramos said the CECC did bring in nurses, but the initiative fell short of a real change.
“They asked for better access to medical services, and there were nurses, but only because of the hunger strike. Now that the hunger strike is over, the nurses are gone. It was a very conditional thing,” said Ramos.
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The hunger strikes ended on October 1, Ramos told The Daily, because of complications with health and hospitalizations, in addition to a lack of response from the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA).
The detainees are still on strike, but are trying a different tactic to have their demands met. They will now be boycotting their hearings that will decide the outcomes of their cases since, according to Ramos, many of the detainees report seeing no progress at their monthly meetings.
The strike has garnered the attention of the United Nations Refugee Agency, who have since visited the CECC to talk to detainees, according to Ramos.
“They said they’re working on it, but that the government is not budging,” said Ramos.
“The CBSA has told detainees they they’re going to deport 60 of them Monday [October 7] or Tuesday [October 8],” Ramos told The Daily. “No one thinks it’s going to happen because they bluff like this all the time. But if it does happen, it means that we’ve lost.”
“What we need is a way to regularize the status of people who are dealing with irregular status,” said Singh. “People who are detained are the tip of the iceberg in terms of people who live in Canada without full status. There are anywhere from half a million to a million people who live without status. In the U.S. it’s closer to 12 million.”
“First and foremost this is about undocumented people struggling to get dignity and justice within the limitations of the Canadian system,” said Syed Hussan, an activist with No One Is Illegal Toronto.
“These are people trying to get better standards. People should not have to go hungry to have access to phone calls, to call their family, to call their lawyer, when you’ve been jailed without [being charged with a] crime. That in itself should call people to act, to rise up, and to question the immigration system in Canada.”
With files from Emelina Ramos.