On April 1, Canadian authorities released several detainees from the Laval Immigration Holding Centre in Quebec. Some had gone on hunger strike to protest the lack of protection from COVID-19 in detention facilities. “We felt abandoned,” one man told Human Rights Watch. “We heard about the new measures that were being taken, like social distancing. But nothing changed for us in detention; it was like those measures were not meant for us, just for Canadians.”
Canada’s quickened release of some immigration detainees is encouraging, but the seriousness of the situation requires a more systemic approach. As of April 1, 64 detainees remained in Canada’s three detention facilities – down from 98 on March 25. Many more immigration detainees – held only on the basis of their immigration status – are in maximum-security jails, where social distancing is even more challenging.
Even under regular circumstances, confinement causes many immigration detainees to develop mental health conditions. They do not have a set release date or access to meaningful mental health care and rehabilitation services, and are under constant threat of deportation. This often compounds existing mental health conditions and prior trauma, particularly for asylum seekers.
But the COVID-19 threat makes the situation worse. In late March, authorities confirmed an employee at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre tested positive for COVID-19 and had begun to exhibit symptoms. A detainee subsequently released from the same facility also tested positive.
In a March 19 petition, immigration detainees pleaded to be released for fear of contamination from the “security staff who are in contact with the external world every day.” Detainees have no control over who enters the space in which they are confined, who touches the utensils they use to eat, or who searches them.
International organizations and advocates, including the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights, have called on governments to release immigration detainees. The Canadian government should be transparent about presumptive and confirmed cases of COVID-19 within detention facilities and jails, and acknowledge the real risk of outbreaks within these facilities. Canadian authorities should work to ensure immediate release of immigration detainees with no imminent prospect of deportation, mitigating risks through alternatives to detention, and prioritize the release of those who are at a high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. Authorities should also ensure those released have access to appropriate accommodations, support, and health care.
While the government urges Canadians to take serious measures to flatten the curve, immigration detainees are pleading with authorities to do the same.