Secrecy cloaks death of immigration detainee in Toronto jail
The death of a Burundian refugee being held in a Toronto jail sparks renewed calls for less secrecy and more transparency within the Canada Border Services Agency.
A 64-year-old Burundian refugee, who was convicted of killing his wife in 2009, hanged himself at the Toronto East Detention Centre earlier this week as he awaited deportation, sources have told the Star.
It was the 13th death of an immigration detainee in Canada Border Services Agency custody since 2000. The death has sparked renewed calls for less secrecy and more transparency within the CBSA — as well as the creation of an oversight body to hold it to account.
Melkioro Gahungu — who came to Canada in 2008 with his family — had fled Burundi during the civil war in the 1990s, according to media reports at the time of his trial. He had only been in Canada for a year when he killed his wife, Maria Nzokilandevi, 53.
The couple’s marriage had been under strain for years — especially when they were in Africa because of their ethnic differences, according to Windsor lawyer Brian Dube, who represented Gahungu at his trial. Gahungu was a Hutu and Nzokilandevi was a Tutsi. The two ethnic groups have been involved in ongoing conflicts in both Burundi and Rwanda that have resulted in mass killings.
Gahungu was awaiting deportation back to Burundi, but a source says because of the escalating violence in his homeland, it was unlikely that was going to happen anytime soon.
According to media reports from the trial, Gahungu had had a difficult time adjusting to life in Canada. He and his wife and three of their five children had settled in Windsor upon arrival.
Gahungu was sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter, but his prison term was reduced to four years and nine months. He had been struggling with mental health issues at the time of his death, a highly placed source told the Star.
In announcing the death on Tuesday, the CBSA cloaked itself in secrecy, refusing to identify the detainee or release any information on the circumstances of his death.
When directly asked by the Star to confirm the victim’s name and circumstances of his death, a spokesman for the CBSA said in an email statement: “What we can confirm is that a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) detainee passed away on March 7, 2016, while under the care and control of the Toronto East Detention Centre. The family of the deceased has been notified and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.
“The CBSA is bound by the Privacy Act and other legislation, and is unable to release the name of the detainee who has died in custody as it is considered personal information.”
A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Safety and Correctional Services refused to comment on or provide any details about the death or the investigation. Similarly, the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service refused to comment.
With this most recent death, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association has renewed its call for independent oversight of the CBSA and the creation of an outside body to investigate deaths in custody.
It is not alone. Last year, a Senate national security committee report called for the establishment of a civilian watchdog of the CBSA to ensure transparency and avoid any possible abuse of power.
“We continue to see across the country deaths in CBSA custody along with many other instances where people have complaints,” said Josh Paterson of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “But there is nowhere people can take these complaints … and no one independent body to provide any review or oversight of CBSA’s activities.”
Others are also speaking out. There have been 13 deaths across the country of detainees in CBSA and its predecessor’s care, said Samer Muscati, director of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program.
“This latest death is a further strain on CBSA’s reputation and highlights the urgent need for reform of the way immigration detention is practised in this country,” Muscati said in a statement.
The IHRP issued a report in June that found nearly one-third of all immigration detainees are held in facilities intended for the criminal population, which violates international human rights law and constitutes “arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Last June, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan died in CBSA custody. Hassan came to Canada from Somalia in 1993. He had been detained for four years at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay after serving time for a criminal conviction and had been issued a deportation order in 2005. He died in a Peterborough hospital on June 11.
In December 2013, Lucia Vega Jimenez, a 42-year-old Mexican migrant who was detained in a Vancouver airport holding cell, hanged herself while facing deportation. A coroner’s inquest into the case made recommendations, including the appointment of an independent ombudsman to mediate any concerns or complaints into the CBSA and the creation of a civilian organization to investigate critical incidents in CBSA custody.
“It is time for something to be done about the glaring oversight gap when it comes to immigration detention in Canada,” added Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International, Canada. “It is unconscionable that immigration detainees can die in custody.”
“Nobody should die while they are in the custody of the CBSA,” said Mitch Goldberg, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers in a news release.
“Holding immigration detainees in provincial jails is deeply problematic,” said Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
The responsibility for this tragedy lies with federal politicians who must act swiftly to end detention, particularly indefinite detention and stop jailing migrants in provincial jails, said Syed Hussan, a spokesperson for the End Immigration Detention Network. “We must move to end immigration detention, it’s the only just way.”
“Whenever there’s a death in CBSA custody it always causes us to ask questions,” added Paterson. “How did this happen? Why was this able to happen within CBSA’s custody and within a provincial correctional centre? Could this have been prevented?
“We’ve seen a number of other tragic deaths in CBSA custody by suicide – there have been coroner’s inquest reports that have made recommendations for changes to be made for more attention and services to be provided to detainees who are suffering with mental illness; recommendations for physical changes to detention centres; to reduce or eliminate opportunities for suicide. And the question is what has CBSA done or not done?”