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People wait in a temporary detention center in Blackpool, Quebec, August 5, 2017.  © Getty Images

What does the COVID-19 pandemic mean for the hundreds of immigration detainees across Canada? Fear.

“Everyone is just scared,” a man in his 30s, detained in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, told Human Rights Watch. “People are especially afraid of the guards because they come in and out, and we know there was at least one (Canada Border Services Agency) officer who caught it. People are depressed and anxious.”

All immigration detainees are held on non-criminal grounds, and the vast majority are not considered to be a safety risk. Yet they’re held in prison-like conditions.

These detainees face significant risks to their physical and mental health if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 in immigration holding centres and maximum-security provincial jails across the country. Detainees are forced into close proximity with others in facilities that tend to have poor ventilation, lack hygiene products, and provide limited access to medical care. While immigration holding centres are designated for immigration detainees, they resemble medium-security prisons, where detainees are subjected to constant surveillance and strict rules and routines.  The man detained in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre told us that at least one guard has been coughing continuously for the entirety of his nightshift while he was making rounds among detainees.

Although Canada is obligated under international law to ensure that immigration detainees have access to medical care that is at least equivalent to the care available for the general population, a 2019 report on the state of Ontario’s jails found that “Correctional facilities are not equipped to provide consistent, equitable, or high-quality health care.” Under these conditions, it is impossible to practise the social distancing that the government is urging everyone to adopt.

Without a countdown to their date of release, no access to meaningful mental health and rehabilitation services, and under the constant threat of deportation, immigration detainees’ mental health often deteriorates.

An already debilitating situation is made worse by the looming threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. As of March 13, the Ontario provincial government barred personal visits to provincial jails, which also house immigration detainees. Moving forward, only professional visits – such as by lawyers – are permitted. Federally run immigration holding centres have instituted the same policy. But further isolating detainees by barring visits from family and friends has repercussions on the wellbeing of the detainees, many of whom already have mental health conditions.

On March 17, Catalina Devandas, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, echoed these concerns: “The situation of people with disabilities in institutions, psychiatric facilities and prisons is particularly grave, given the high risk of contamination and the lack of external oversight, aggravated by the use of emergency powers for health reasons.”

The federal government should take meaningful steps to prevent transmission in detention facilities across the country. Since March 13, the Ontario provincial government has allowed low-risk inmates who serve time only on weekends to return home. Immigration detention is not for the purpose of punishment but rather to ensure that a deportation can be executed; if removals are halted for public health or other reasons, the lawful basis for immigration detention evaporates and detainees should be released.

In any case, authorities should release immigration detainees who pose no public safety risk, and prioritize the release of those who are at a high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, such as people with disabilities and older persons.

“Our lives are being put at risk,” the man in immigration detention told us, “in a place where we already struggle to cope.” The government should take the necessary measures to stop a preventable human catastrophe.

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