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Immigration Detainees Are on a Hunger Strike Over Coronavirus Fears

Migrants in a detention centre near Montreal are demanding to be released, fearing the conditions at the facility may lead to a coronavirus 'disaster.'

by Jillian Kestler-D’Amours
Mar 26 2020, 11:58am

Migrants at the Laval, Quebec  immigration detention centre say their detention puts them at risk of contracting COVID-19. August 2016 file photo by Graham Hughes/CP

Ten people at an immigration detention centre north of Montreal are on the third day of an open-ended hunger strike, amid concerns that their detention puts them at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The hunger strikers say they fear that conditions at the Laval, Que., facility, which is run by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), could lead them to contracting the virus.

They started refusing food on Tuesday morning, but are still drinking water.

“We feel like we’re in danger,” one of the detainees, who goes by the pseudonym Abdoul, told VICE over the phone from the detention centre on Wednesday afternoon.

The hunger strike comes after nearly three dozen detainees at the Laval facility signed a handwritten letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, CBSA President John Ossowski, and other government officials on March 19, that demanded their immediate release.

“We believe that we are at high risk,” they wrote in the letter in French.

The detainees pointed to the close quarters in which they’re held, the arrival of new detainees “that have not undergone a medical check or test” for the coronavirus, and the frequent comings and goings of guards, as possible risk factors.

“We know that if a single person comes in with the virus, we’ll all be contaminated at the same time. It’s a preventative measure,” said Abdoul, about the hunger strike. “We don’t want to wait for disaster to strike.”

A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada told VICE in a brief email that the ministry was aware of the situation and was “monitoring it closely.” The CBSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts have cautioned that the coronavirus, which is highly contagious, could spread more easily in cramped detention facilities. Several have urged governments to release prisoners in order to stave off serious outbreaks.

Amy Darwish, a member of Solidarity Across Borders, an activist group supporting the hunger strikers, said the detainees have no way to implement the advice from public health officials to wash hands regularly with soap and water and practise social distancing.

“That’s impossible in the context of a detention centre. People are living in close quarters. There are guards, food and maintenance personnel who are consistently coming in and out,” Darwish told VICE over the phone.

She said that visits to the detention centre have been cancelled since March 16, which has also “compounded (detainees’) feelings of isolation and powerlessness” during the pandemic.

For his part, Abdoul—who said he has spent two months in the detention facility—remains steadfast. “We all feel like we’re getting weaker. We haven’t eaten for 24 hours. But we’re still holding on,” he said.

“We don’t want to wait for death here. We want to be safe like all other people. We just want to be treated normally.”

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