This article first appeared on VICE Canada.
Under the Stephen Harper government, a person awaiting deportation from Canada is increasingly likely to end up in a medium or maximum security jail with hardened criminals rather than in an immigration holding center. Tens of thousands of those migrants have been detained for non-criminal immigration issues, their main crime being possession of a desire to live in this country. And since Canada places no limit on the length of such detentions, those caught up in the system can languish in jail indefinitely.
Demonstrators at a Family Day rally on February 16 gave speeches expressing solidarity with all inmates at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario, but they came specifically to demand the release of nearly 150 migrant men who have been detained in the medium to maximum security jail for months and even years at a time as the federal border agency tries and fails to deport them. Many of the Lindsay detainees are from Toronto and the surrounding area, and families travel hours to see them for 20-minute visits behind glass walls. While immigration detentions spanning months and years are not the norm, they appear to be increasingly common; according to a report by the End Immigration Detention Network, which sponsored the rally, the federal government released only15 percent of the migrants jailed in 2013.
"Today is Family Day—I miss my dad," said Melika Mojarrab, the teenage daughter of Masoud Hajivand, who has been detained in Lindsay for the past eight months while the government attempts to deport him to Iran. Hajivand, who publicly converted to Christianity from Islam, says he fears imprisonment, torture, or even death if he returns to Iran. "If Canada deports him to Iran, I will not be able to see him again," Mojarrab said. "His life is in extreme danger."
The federal government acknowledges that Iranian emigrants may face state persecution and torture if they return home, and our courts have reversed some recent deportations to Iran over safety and human rights concerns. For example, the feds halted the deportation of Iranian Fatemeh Tosarvandan in 2012 over fears she might be stoned to death over accusations of adultery. But Ottawa continues to pursue deportations to Iran and other countries that the United Nations and human rights groups consider unsafe.
The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) enforces Canada's immigration rules and detains migrants who lack the proper documentation to remain in Canada. In addition to concerns about sending migrants back to unsafe countries, the government is often unable to deport people because it cannot identify them, or because a migrant's home country refuses to acknowledge their citizenship and grant reentry. Increasingly, people in these circumstances are being detained not in immigration facilities, but in costly jails. Families are split up, and Canadians pay to indefinitely detain migrants who have never even been charged with crimes. CBSA says the average cost of detaining one migrant in Canada is $239 a day—overall, the agency spends $54 million annually to detain migrants for non-criminal immigration matters.
Despite the fact that they couldn't enter the facility, organizers made contact with detainees through creativity and sheer volume. The parking lot rally included a call from inmates inside the jail—organizers amplified the call through a speaker and amplifier, and demonstrators hushed and leaned in to hear an inmate named Eric say, "We're happy that you guys came here today to support our solidarity… Keep doing what you are doing."
The group then marched along a path around the perimeter of the jail, in the shadow of a five meter barbed wire fence. They smashed pots and pans and drums, and lifted their voices towards the prison walls. When the demonstrators fell silent, they heard inmates banging on the windows and walls of the jail. Marchers chanted back, "We can hear you!" Several of the narrow windows contained the silhouettes of men with fists raised, jumping and saluting the crowd.
One of the men jumping with demonstrators was Martin Sisay; he was released from the Lindsay jail in February 2014 after more than three years of incarceration. Sisay, a native of Gambia, came to Canada from the United States in 2011 and was soon arrested for impaired driving. "I was sentenced to 15 days in prison, and I ended up serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence," said Sisay. Canada wanted to deport him to Gambia, where he has not lived since he was 12, but the country refused to recognize Sisay's citizenship.
The former inmate described the conditions inside the jail as "hell," with frequent lockdowns and poor access to health care and books. "I mean, you're incarcerated without a crime, so imagine that," he laughed. Sisay said he didn't expect special treatment, but couldn't understand why he needed to be separated from his wife and daughter over an immigration issue. "If you have criminals and murderers that are from this society, born and raised in Canada, that do time and get freed into society, I don't see why migrants cannot be."
Among the demonstrators were high school students from nearby Peterborough like Alecia Golding, who helped organize the rally after learning about migrant detentions. Golding, whose parents immigrated from Jamaica and England respectively, said a lot of her peers don't understand why she would brave the cold to fight for detained migrants. "They don't believe what I do is valid, because they don't know what it's like to suffer."
End Immigration Detention Network, a group that has been advocating for the detained migrants since 2013, issued a statement on Family day demanding "an end to maximum security detention in provincial jails for migrants; a limit of 90 days that migrants can be held in detention pending deportation as per international best practices; and overhaul of the detention review process." EIDN maintains that the government is exploiting racist and xenophobic public sentiments to justify migrant detentions. "We all know who's in those jails: it's a lot of people from different parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America," said rally organizer Mina Ramos.
Demonstrators turned back for their cars and buses as the sun set on a five-degree afternoon. A few stayed for hot soup and tea in the bone-chilling weather. As people finally retreated to their vehicles, Ramos encouraged them to stay connected with the Network's efforts. "This shit ain't over—it ain't over till everybody's free!"
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