Hunger-striking Immigrant Detainees Held in Canada for Years Without Trial
Supporters rally in snowstorm outside maximum security prison to show solidarity for prisoners being held without charges or release date
Produced by Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke
DYAN RUIZ, REPORTER: Busloads of people from Toronto, Canada, and other cities in Ontario gathered to protest the indefinite detention of migrants at a prison in Lindsay, a town two hours northeast of Toronto.
MINA RAMOS, ORGANIZER, END IMMIGRATION DETENTION NETWORK: Some of these people have been held for up to seven years without charges, with no idea when they are going to get out. When you get a regular jail sentence, you get a sentence. They tell you when you will get out. But in this case these people have no idea. And when they do find out, they do not know if they will be released to their friends and family members–a lot of these people have children, they have wives–or if they will be deported.
RUIZ: The Central East Correctional Centre, also known as the Lindsay Superjail, is a maximum security prison with about 1,200 beds. The migrants join the prison’s population of convicted criminals, along with men and women who have been held before trial.
More than 150 immigrants were moved here in August because of closures to Toronto detention facilities. In Canada, there is no limit to the amount of time immigrants can be detained, so there are detainees who have been held here for close to a decade.
There are about 600 migrants being detained nationwide, according to figures provided to The Toronto Star last month by the Canada Border Services Agency.
A migrant is detained because he or she is considered by the government to be a flight risk, a danger to the public, or came in through an “irregular visit”. Migrants may also be held because they can’t be identified, or their home country refuses to take them back.
This immigration consultant says Canada is holding people for administrative reasons.
MACDONALD SCOTT, IMMIGRATION CONSULTANT, CARRANZA LLP: It’s not a criminal offence to overstay your visa. It’s not a criminal offence to lose your permanent residency status. And yet many of these men are being held longer than they would get for a serious criminal offence.
RUIZ: One detained migrant is Victor Vinnetou, who has been held for close to a decade. He’s believed to be a South African anti-apartheid icon who disappeared 37 years ago. He may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and therefore is not cooperating with the Canadian government.
One of Macdonald’s clients is Michael Mvogo, who has been jailed for seven years. Macdonald has brought Canada’s indefinite detention of immigrants before the United Nations.
SCOTT: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says specifically that people should not be held indefinitely, that if they’re jailed, they should know when the end is coming and there should be an end in sight, that there should be a process to decide how long you’re being held, which is what happens in criminal law. Based on that, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion saying that countries should have a presumptive period. If you can’t remove someone within a certain period, you should have to release them.
RUIZ: In the United States, immigrants are detained a maximum of 90 days and are released if they can’t be deported. A similar limit exists for countries in the European Union.
Moving the detainees to Lindsay means that family members and lawyers of the migrants, many of whom are based in Toronto, have to trek at least four hours’ round trip to visit.
Sarah Sillah is married to a detainee.
SARAH SILLAH, WIFE OF IMMIGRATION DETAINEE: It’s very, very difficult to speak to him. It takes over ten hours of travel for me to get 20 minutes with him behind glass. I was actually banned from seeing him for the first six months. He was at a different facility for protesting his removal, which the Federal Court of Canada stayed. So we’re currently waiting on that. And we have a sponsorship that’s pending. So to hold him is absolutely ridiculous.
RUIZ: The protesters are clear about what they want the Canadian government to do.
TINGS CHAK, ORGANIZER, END IMMIGRATION DETENTION NETWORK: The demands that we’re supporting today for the detainees is an end to indefinite immigration detention, an instatement of the 90 day presumptive period, an overhaul of the detention review process, as well as an end to holding up immigration detainees in maximum security.
RUIZ: Supporters of the campaign include John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, the documentary filmmaker and doctor who made international headlines this year when they were held without charge for seven weeks in Egypt. They were released and arrived back in Canada three months ago. They visited the prison last month when the detainees were holding a hunger strike to protest their detention and move to Lindsay. Loubani said the conditions were worse than they experienced in the Egyptian jail.
Detainees are again holding a hunger strike in solidarity with the protesters at the rally. There was an international call for people to fast in support of releasing the detainees.
In a statement to The Real News Network, Canada Border and Services Agency said these “higher risk detainees” were moved to the prison in Lindsay temporarily as they await the opening of a new facility in Toronto. Each person is “arrested and/or detained in accordance with provisions under the law” and there are a “number of relevant checks and balances” when a decision is made to detain an immigrant.
During the protest, the crowd quieted down to hear the detainees inside the prison.
RALLY PARTICIPANT: Prisoners are banging on the wall right now!
RUIZ: They were banging on the walls to tell the protesters that they saw and heard their support.
An organizer with No One Is Illegal talked with the detainees on the phone after the rally.
SYED HUSSAN, ORGANIZER, NO ONE IS ILLEGAL: We received word from the detainees inside. And initially when they called, it was very loud, and one couldn’t really figure out what was happening. But, in fact, everyone was jumping and screaming, “Freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom!” And the guards actually rushed in into the ranges to try and figure out what was happening, ’cause they couldn’t believe that so many people had come all this far to support the detainees, and it was a very powerful, inspiring moment.
RUIZ: The organizers say they will continue to campaign for the release of the detainees. An appeal to the UN Refugee Agency is still under review, with the immigrants’ legal representatives asking for their immediate release as a decision is being made. When asked whether the Canadian government plans to limit the lengths of immigrants’ detention, they said there is currently no limit and no plans to add one were mentioned.
CROWD: End detention! End, end detention!
RUIZ: This is Dyan Ruiz for The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.