Immigration Detainees Go on Hunger Strike to Highlight Canada’s Disturbing Detention Policy
Canada has a no cap for locking up migrants, meaning thousands of non-criminals are behind bars.
Toby Clark is hungry and behind bars at the Toronto East Detention Centre but he's not a criminal.
Clark is one of nearly 60 immigrants in two maximum security prisons in Ontario who began a hunger strike on Monday to demand a meeting with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to talk about indefinite detentions in maximum security prisons.
"The reason we are going on hunger strike is because we don't like the conditions that we are living in and the laws are kind of hard on immigration," Clark said in audio released by the End Immigration Detention Network.
"Some people are held years and there is nothing that they can do about it."
Clark has been on immigration hold since August 2014, according to the recording.
"It's sad that people are separated from their family [and] Canada for so long, they don't get a second chance," Clark said. "One thing I've learned in the past is that Canada is supposedly big on not separating families but it doesn't seem that way with immigration."
The food is being refused at Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay and the Toronto East Detention Centre in Scarborough to bring attention to Canada's complete lack of a cap or time limit when it comes to detaining migrants. In the UK and the US detainees are released after 90 days if the countries are unable to deport them.
In 2015, a report released from the University of Toronto's International Human Rights Program (IHRP) said indefinite detention is "cruel and inhuman," and a flagrant violation of Canada's commitments to international human rights law.
"The reason that they are in this detention is because the government can't support them," Sharmeen Khan, an organizer with the End Immigration Detention Network, told VICE.
"Sometimes because the countries that they are trying to deport them to won't give them travel documents or the country is too unsafe. So because of that they are just held."
The hunger striking detainees are being housed in prisons, which is the end result for people awaiting deportation who run into bureaucratic or administrative issues—things like torture or war in their home country or issues regarding their citizenship are largely the reasons for the delays. Prior to that people are held in detention centres. A VICE News investigation found that over the last decade, from 2005 to 2015, more than 4,392 minors under the age of 18 were held in immigration detention centers in Canada.
The men on hunger strike have gone beyond the time allowed in detention centres so they are behind bars. But since they aren't actually considered criminals they aren't allowed with the general population, Khan said.
"They are isolated and they are separated from the regular population. They are also just in maximum security prison and spend 18 to 21 hours in their cell," she said. "When they are released from that cell they are not actually allowed outside ... they are only brought to a bigger cell where they can exercise or walk around."
Isolation, a lack of outdoors, bars, and criminalization as a result of incarceration has serious physical and psychological impacts.
"To me, the way immigration detentions is right now, it's cruel and unusual punishment. So we really need to look into this immigration detention situation," Clark said, nearly two years after his detention.
Although their health is being compromised by the hunger strike, the detainees know all too well that coming out from behind bars isn't always an option. Two men being held by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) died in Ontario this spring. Another man died at the Edmonton Remand Centre in May.
Fifteen people have died in immigration detention while in CBSA custody since 2000, according to the End Immigration Detention Network.
"We don't get any information about the deaths and the families have actually received very little information about what actually happened, what happened before, what's the investigation like," Khan said. "The CBSA is not required to [provide it]."
In 2014/15, there were 6,768 detainees in Canada, including both detainees in CBSA holding facilities and in provincial jails, according to the Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
"CBSA is required to consider all reasonable alternatives before detaining someone. Under Canadian law, detention is only allowed when: identity is not certain, there is a flight risk or a danger for the public," said Scott Bardsley, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, in an email to VICE.
Bardsley added that Goodale is working on issues related to detention and hopes to put forward public proposals later this year.
"These challenges go beyond policy and require changes in the physical capacity of the system to address," Bardsley said.
He said the government is looking to strengthen the accountability and scrutiny of all security agencies, including CBSA, during upcoming consultation on the national security framework.
Khan said the detention is a reflection of the new Liberal government's hypocrisy as it tries to "portray itself as a social justice government," attempting to reverse human rights violations of the Conservatives.
"[It] has done next to nothing about people who have been in prison with no charge and no due process, some for many, many years," she said.
Khan said there is a clear choice which could be carried out quickly—the 90 day limit for detainees which has been implemented in other countries and recommended by the UN.
"It''s not their fault that they can't get papers from their home country. It's not their fault that there's war or torture waiting for them if they return to that country," Khan said. "So it's really appalling that the only option is that they sit in these cells disconnected and isolated from their families."
In 2013, immigration detainees in the Lindsay jail held a hunger strike. Khan said they raised similar issues—this time she hopes more hearts will open and more ears will listen.
"There has been no movement about their status or their detention. Many have been there for many years with no charges," she said.
"These are not just like young strapping men who are going on a hunger strike they already are surviving through a lot of hardship emotionally and physically ... It's really their last act of self determination as a way to pressure the government."
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