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Suicide of Burundian in Canadian Jail Latest ‘Stain’ on Immigration System, Critics Say

Melkioro Gahungu, 64, is the 13th detainee to die while under CBSA custody since 2000. He had served his time for killing his wife, and was being held for deportation when he hanged himself in a Toronto jail.
Photo via End Immigration Detention Network

The death of a Burundian man who hanged himself while awaiting deportation by the Canadian government at a Toronto jail has renewed calls for oversight of Canada's border services agency, and criticisms over the way migrants are treated in custody.

Melkioro Gahungu, 64, is the 13th detainee to die while under CBSA custody since 2000.

He had been found guilty of killing his wife in 2009, after the couple and their children fled their war-torn home in Burundi, and settled in Canada as refugees in 2008.


Gahungu, who suffered from mental illness, served four years and nine months for manslaughter, and at some point came to be in the custody of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). He was imprisoned under an immigration order in the Toronto East Detention Center, a maximum security provincial jail.

Andrew Brouwer, senior counsel at the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario, confirmed to VICE News that his office was handling Gahungu's case, but couldn't comment any further pending instruction from Gahungu's children.

Canada's record of detaining asylum seekers has long been under fierce criticism at home and abroad, and human rights activists and legal experts say this case highlights the need for oversight of CBSA. It's one of the only Canadian law enforcement agencies that isn't subjected to independent scrutiny.

"This latest death is a further stain on CBSA's reputation and highlights the urgent need for reform of the way immigration detention is practiced in this country," Samer Muscati, director at the University of Toronto's International Human Rights Program (IHRP) wrote in a press release.

Howard Crosner, the honorary consul for the Consulate of Burundi in Toronto, told VICE News on Thursday he received a phone call from a CBSA enforcement supervisor on Monday notifying him of Gahungu's death.

"I asked her what the cause of death was and she told me he died by suicide. And I asked her to send me a letter in writing to confirm that," Crosner said. However, he says the letter he received did not confirm that suicide was the cause of death. "That piece of information was absent."


Crosner says he is continuing to press CBSA for a death certificate, a copy of any autopsy report, a description of the circumstances under which Gahungu died, and whether they intend to repatriate his remains.

Crosner says CBSA told him Gahungu was being deported because of his criminal conviction in Canada. According to a Windsor Star story from 2012 at the time of his sentencing, three of Gahungu's children were living in Canada, two were living in Australia, and one died while the family was living in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Samer Muscati, from IHRP at the University of Toronto, said that the fact Gahungu was a convicted a criminal does not have any bearing on CBSA's duties.

"It's a horrific thing that happened in the past, but that's not relevant for the purposes of what happened to this person. CBSA does bear responsibility for people under its jurisdiction and it has to be held responsible for the wellbeing of detainees regardless of why they are detained," Muscati said in an interview. "Regardless of what this person's past was, he wasn't sentenced to a death sentence. He shouldn't have died in prison."

CBSA would not confirm Gahungu's identity, nor the circumstances surrounding the death of the detainee. "What we can confirm is that a CBSA detainee passed away on March 7, 2016, while under the care and control of the Toronto East Detention Centre. The family of the deceased has been notified and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time," a spokesperson wrote in an email, adding that an investigation had been launched.


The CBSA relies on provincial correctional services to hold "higher risk" detainees, CBSA spokesperson Antonella Digirolamo, told VICE News earlier this week.

Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services ministry spokesperson Brent Ross also would not comment on the detainee's identity or cause of death citing investigations are ongoing.

But Laura Track, a lawyer with the BC Civil Liberties Association, says the case is one more reminder that reform is long overdue.

"When deaths happen in custody, we need independent, civilian-led investigations if the public is to have any confidence in the results," she wrote in the same press release the University of Toronto put out, alongside other civil liberties advocates.

Related: Canada's Incarceration of Migrants is 'Cruel and Inhuman,' New Report Says

Thousands of migrants are routinely jailed across Canada, sometimes indefinitely. Canada is one of the only countries that does not put a cap on how long a migrant can be detained. Canadian border security officials can arrest and detain migrants and permanent residents if they are suspected of not attending their hearings, if their identity is called into question, and or if they are deemed a threat to public safety.

In 2015, a UN report slammed Canada for its immigration detention regime, specifically criticizes the lack of mental health and other medical supports for detainees.

"The inability of a state party to carry out the expulsion of an individual does not justify detention beyond the shortest period of time or where there are alternatives to detention, and under no circumstances indefinite detention," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions said at the time.


A report released last year by the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto found this practice creates and exacerbates mental health issues among detainees, and is a blatant violation of Canada's obligations under international human rights law. The 122-page report, presented to the UN Human Rights Committee last July, stated that Canada's continual imprisonment of migrants was "cruel and inhuman."

Report authors interviewed a number of detainees, who had been jailed anywhere from two months to eight years.

Perhaps the most notable case of a death under CBSA custody involved a Mexican migrant woman, Lucía Vega Jiménez, who hanged herself in 2013 in an immigration detention facility in Vancouver. She was facing imminent deportation.

Related: Canada is Going to Deport a Syrian Teen it Kept in Solitary Confinement for Weeks

Her case prompted outcry at CBSA's detention practices, and a coroner's report into her death made a number of recommendations, including the implementation of an oversight body for CBSA.

Last June, a Somali migrant, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, who was also in the custody of CBSA, died in a Peterborough, Ontario hospital. He was being held in a nearby jail.

According to the Toronto Star, more than 8,519 people found to have breached immigration laws were imprisoned and held for an average of 23 days.

The CBSA's website states that detained people will "be treated with dignity and respect at all times" and that it's the agency's responsibility to ensure detainees are held in an environment that is "safe and secure."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne