Immigrant detainees at two Ontario prisons have been on hunger strike for over two weeks now in an effort to pressure the government to stop holding immigrant detainees indefinitely and placing them in maximum security prisons.
According to the Tinks Chak of the End Immigration Detention Network, the strike began on July 11 with 68 detainees and that number has since stayed consistently around 50. This is contrary to information provided by the Canada Border Services Agency that the number fluctuates with each meal — it had at one point reached 41 refusals, but now has gone down to two people, both of whom are in the same facility.
Chak says it's been difficult to confirm the numbers because of constant lockdowns at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, and the Toronto East Detention Centre in Scarborough, where the protests are taking place.
A lot of the longer-term detainees, said Chak, are determined to continue until they can meet with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
"A lot of the people inside have been facing a lot of repression for the hunger strike," she said. "Being threatened with segregation, being threatened — especially those deemed to be key organizers — with transfer to different facilities."
One person who was identified as a key organizer was scheduled for deportation yesterday, although it's unclear whether the deportation actually took place, Chak said.
"That's something we've seen consistently not only in the strike, but in previous actions, using deportation as a threat to shut down the actions that are happening," said Chak. "In addition to that, there are constant lockdowns, with people being stuck in their cells 21 or 22 hours a day, and the shutting off of water as another repercussion."
The protesters hope to see the immigration period limited to 90 days if they're not deported to their country of origin by then and to stop the transfer of detainees seen as "high risk" — for reasons including being deemed a flight risk or having a criminal background — to provincials prisons.
The CBSA has sent representatives to meet with spokespeople from the groups that are on strike, but such meetings have not resulted in much concrete change in the past, said Chak.
Michelle Fraser, one of 65 medical professionals to write a letter to Goodale, said in a statement released by the IMDN on July 21 that she was concerned that the hunger strike "will put already vulnerable people at further risk of physical and mental harm.
"That 50 detainees feel forced to hunger strike, to put their lives at risk, to meet with elected officials and to demand that Canada follow international law, is shameful," she said.
Medical staff are required to monitor those who are refusing meals through daily exams, making notes of vitals and food/fluid intake, and to transfer anyone who is significantly ill to a medical facility, the CBSA told VICE News, adding that Canada's immigration detention practices "are recognized as some of the best globally."
Spokesperson Line A. Guibert-Wolff said detention is only used as a last resort, and takes place at an officer's discretion when there are grounds to believe the person is inadmissible to Canada and is a danger to the public, a flight risk, or when their identity can't be confirmed.
Between 200 and 250 immigrant detainees are held in provincial jails at any given time, in spaces rented by the Canadian Border Services Agency. Many of them don't have criminal charges, but live alongside convicted criminals in the exact same restrictive conditions they do.
"The Minister has heard the concerns and is studying them with care," Guibert-Wolfftold VICE News, adding that a Canada-tailored strategy that brings the country up to speed with international standards has been developed. The Minister has met with Filippo Grandi, the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and other stakeholders on the subject.
The new strategy, which the government hopes to unveil "soon" aims to minimize the detention of children, to ensure alternatives to detention are available and used, to reduce the use of provincial prisons for lower risk detainees.
In June, Goodale announced that the practice would be mostly phased out.
"[It] is entirely inappropriate to mingle people who are having an immigration or refugee issue with people who have been convicted of criminal offences," he had told reporters.
"Can I say that we will stop it altogether? I can't honestly make that comment now. But dramatically reduce it? Yes. That is the objective."
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