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This Man Was Jailed for Five Years Because Canada Couldn't Deport Him

In December, after five years and seven months behind bars and at his 76th detention review, Abdirahmaan Warssama got word: he was finally getting out. He sat down with VICE News for his first interview since his release.
January 14, 2016, 6:50pm
Photo by Tamara Khandaker/VICE News

On one of the happiest days of Abdirahmaan Warssama's life, he got his hair cut and devoured a home-cooked meal of Somali food at his sister's house.

The 52-year-old had just been released from an Ontario prison, where he'd languished for years as an immigrant detainee, waiting to find out if the Canadian government would figure out a way to send him back to Somalia — or if he would ever taste freedom in Canada again.

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In December, after five years and seven months behind bars, at his 76th detention review, he got word: he was finally getting out. The feeling was surreal.

"I'm not the same person I was before I went in," Warssama said, sitting in his lawyer's downtown Toronto office, in his first interview since his release. "I'm telling you."

He wore a pinstripe blazer, buttoned all the way to the top, and spoke animatedly in a thick Somali accent.

"You look good," said his lawyer Subodh Bharati, complimenting his glasses. Warssama grinned and revealed two missing teeth, which he said were knocked out by his fellow inmates, who beat him up on two different occasions.

After spending years at the notorious Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. — not for a crime, but because he was deemed a flight risk by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) as it tried to sort out how to send him home — he still has no status, no way of earning an income, and is in need of medical and psychiatric care.

That he is even on the outside now is the result of intervention by the federal court, which expressed outrage over the unusual case. And the threat that he may still be deported — past criminal convictions deem him inadmissible — looms large.

"Mr. Warssama has been held in jail for more than five years. Why?" asked Justice Sean J. Harrington in his sharply written decision released late last year. "Because he will not sign a piece of paper! He does not wish to return to Somalia and will not sign a declaration that he will cooperate in his return."

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The judge scolded the minister of citizenship and immigration for not exploring alternatives to the seemingly indefinite detention. "There comes a point in time in which time itself becomes overwhelming, requiring the parties, and the Immigration Division, to think outside the box."

Canada's immigration detention system has been widely criticized in recent months — a July UN report raised alarms over indefinite length and inadequate support for detainees with mental health issues, while a University of Toronto study from June called the whole system a "legal black hole."

'I'm not the same person I was before I went in.'

According to statistics in the Toronto Star, 8,519 people were detained in 2014 in Canada for violating immigration law. The average length of detention is 23 days, the newspaper found, but 58 people were locked up for over a year. Warssama's own lawyer says he has another client who became catatonic, and was place in solitary confinement for two years.

The U of T study came shortly after another detainee, 39-year-old Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, died in immigration custody. Hassan, who suffered from schizophrenia, had been waiting four years to be deported to Somalia. He's one of 12 people to die in immigration detention since 2000, and hardly any information has been released about what happened to him, prompting callsfor greater transparency and oversight of the CBSA, which has wide latitude in how it can deal with non-citizens.

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According to the study, 30 percent of the detainees are being held in provincial prisons meant for convicted criminals, where neither the CBSA nor the provincial jail has clear jurisdiction over their conditions and treatment. Researchers also heard that migrants were placed in prisons when when they had pre-existing mental conditions, medical issues, or were seen as uncooperative by the CBSA. They also found detention created mental health issues and made existing ones even worse.

Warssama seems to fit the profile.

Through it all, he's remained steadfast in his refusal to return to Somalia. The place where he grew up now holds only memories of horror — it's where he claims he was tortured and three of his family members were killed. He's afraid that if he goes back, he will be too, and that's if he's not first forced to join the ranks of Al Shabab or al Qaeda.

One of nine children, Warssama said his father was kidnapped by government forces in 1987, and that he and her brother were taken shortly afterwards, believed to be supporters of the Somalian National Movement, a rebel group.

While imprisoned in Mogadishu, Warssama claims he was beaten, kept in solitary confinement in a cell that was too small for him to stand in, and fed next to nothing. He recalls being stuffed into an empty rice sack and submerged in the ocean, where he nearly drowned. At one point he lost consciousness, and when he woke up in a hospital, a guard told him he'd been in a coma for two months, he said.

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With the help of his mother, who had been raising money to bribe one of his guards, Warssama escaped Somalia for Kenya, where he boarded a boat to India. In India, he obtained a fake Kenyan passport and used it to travel to Montreal in 1989.

Meanwhile, the rest of his family went their separate ways, with many of his siblings making successful refugee claims in the Netherlands, the UK, and Kenya. His sister Kiine is in Canada. Warssama's mother, unable to leave Somalia due to age, stayed behind, as did one of his sisters to take care of her. In 2012, he heard both were killed by Al Shabab militants.

"Thus my last link to Somalia is gone," he wrote in an affidavit.

The Canadian government believes conditions in Somalia are so dangerous, in fact, that Canadian officials aren't allowed to travel to the country and no one is deported there. That policy doesn't apply, however, to people who are criminally inadmissible, and Warssama was convicted of several charges in the mid-2000s.

After he refused to give his name to two cops on bicycles (because he didn't believe they were actually police officers) and was busted with a small amount of weed, he was charged with obstructing a police officer and possession. He was convicted of these offences, along with uttering threats and failing to attend court. Later, he says his anger issues manifested in his relationship with his girlfriend, leading to an arrest for criminal harassment. His sister Kiine bailed him out.

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

"I am ashamed to say that on a few occasions I have acted harshly, without controlling my emotions and without thinking," he said in an affidavit. "I was young and stupid. I also realize now that I continued to suffer from PTSD resulting in angry outbursts. I truly regret these decisions."

On the advice of his lawyer, to avoid detention, Warssama pled guilty to criminal harassment, failure to comply (for his spotty attendance at a court-ordered alcohol counseling program), and assault.

Nonetheless, he has never been considered a danger to the public. But because of his criminal convictions, he's inadmissible to Canada.

What has made deporting Warssama particularly difficult, and what ultimately set him free, is his stubborn unwillingness to be complicit in his own removal.

To get around the restrictions on Canadian authorities from accompanying Warssama to Somalia, the CBSA sought to enlist a private airline willing to fly deportees to Mogadishu from neighboring countries. African Express Airways, however, would only agree if Warssama signed a form promising to cooperate during his removal.

This is how Canada sent six people back to Somalia in 2015. Four more deportations are scheduled this month.

But Warssama doesn't want to go back and has consistently refused to sign the form.

"I rather stay in jail than go back to Somalia," he said. And so he did.

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Warssama said that over the course of his detention he lost over 30 pounds, was severely beaten multiple times, and was never granted face-to-face contact with his sister.

At Toronto West Detention Centre, he was assaulted by four inmates he'd never seen before for going into the bathroom without slippers, he said. That was the first time he lost a tooth.

The fight stopped only after he was on the ground, unable to move. No guards helped him, and he didn't tell anyone for fear of making things worse. Something as small as asking the other inmates to turn the TV down can end in a beatdown, he said, pointing to his left side. The pain from being kicked on that side has made it harder for him to breathe.

"I can't tell the guards because if I tell the guards, I get more beat. Nobody cares because it's jail," he says. "You can't tell anyone. The other inmates, they'd see it. They say you're a snitch."

In the summer of 2013, he was transferred to the maximum security provincial prison in Lindsay, where he says there was little distinction made between himself and other detainees, many of whom were convicted criminals. With staff shortages resulting in frequent lockdowns — there were 199 in 2014 — he was often unable to leave his cell or make calls.

"Sometimes, I go to the cell and cry until I'm tired," said Warssama, who was previously diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I requested psychological doctors and I don't get nothing."

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"Even now that I'm released, I'm walking down the street, thinking that people will rush me from CBSA. Still, when I'm sleeping, I go to bed, and after two-three hours, I think I'm inside the jail," he said. "Where I am, I don't know even."

A recent report by the Red Cross, which monitors the immigration detention system in Canada, identified the mental health of detainees as a "growing area of concern," and are looking to study it further.

While they didn't comment on Warssama's case specifically, the Ministry of Correctional Services and Community Safety said anyone being held on behalf of the CBSA has the same access to the same services and supports as other inmates, including access to medical care and mental health help regardless of a diagnosis of a specific mental illness, as well as access to rehabilitative programming and work opportunities when available.

Spokesperson Brent Ross also noted in an email that all inmates "have the right to make complaints or raise concerns about the conditions of their incarceration, the treatment and services they receive, and institutional policies."

Warssama might have felt a bit of relief from prison life had he been able to talk to his sister. But the five or six times she tried to visit, she was told she didn't have proper identification, which both Warssama and Bharati find hard to believe.

Without so much as an interview, Warssama's sister was rejected as a surety twice in 2013 and 2014, with the conclusion that she wouldn't be able to influence him in a positive way.

But IRB official Henrique believed otherwise, saying she observed a "real connection between her" and Warssama, describing her as "an extremely responsible individual who was proud and grateful to be a citizen of this country," who expressed "extreme anger and disappointment" about how her brother's life had turned out.

Warssama is living with her now as he figures out his next steps. Bharati hopes in the next few weeks to help his client reacclimate to life outside of jail — get him to a doctor and a dentist, and apply for a work permit.

He has already filed an application for Warssama to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The lawyer hopes his client's release will bring more watchful eyes to what he sees as an unjust, inefficient system. Most detention reviews, he says, are "basically rubber stamps of previous decisions to detain," which means that "you have people stuck in immigration detention for years that are no danger to the Canadian public."

Before his detention, Warssama says for a while he drove a taxi and worked at a car rental agency, but mostly, he was the "joke guy" that everyone loved, frequently helping out the elderly in the Somali community.

"Right now it's different," he says. "I can't see the light. Even last week, I was thinking maybe it's better to go back to jail because I don't see nothing."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk