Lawyers join doctors and nurses in ‘end immigration detention’ campaign
Legal experts are asking Ontario to end a deal with Ottawa that allows the jailing of immigration detainees.
Ontario lawyers are calling on the province to end the “arbitrary and punitive detention” of migrants held in provincial jails for violating the country’s immigration laws.
The move follows a similar effort by doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals in an open letter to Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi, after a string of recent deaths involving immigration detainees.
“The concern we have is that people are being detained and transferred to facilities for people punished for criminal offences for the convenience of CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency),” said University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin, one of more than 100 refugee lawyers in Ontario who signed the petition sent to Naqvi’s office last Wednesday.
“These people have not committed any crime. One of the reasons they give to transfer them is because of their mental health problems, and we know putting people with mental health problems in jail is going to make them worse.”
CBSA transfers detainees from its holding centres to provincial jails if they pose a danger to others, have physical and mental health needs or are unlikely to qualify for early release.
“We are gravely concerned that there are no public laws or regulations governing when and in what circumstances an immigration detainee can be transferred to, and incarcerated in, a provincial jail,” said the three-page letter, signed by lawyers and academics in refugee and immigration laws.
In a written statement, Naqvi did not respond directly to the petitioners’ demand but said the province is committed to ensuring all inmates are treated fairly and respectfully, by hiring 2,000 additional officers and 32 new mental health nurses in its correctional facilities.
“More staff means fewer lockdowns, more regular and consistent programming, more access for health care and mental health supports, and improved safety and security for both staff and inmates,” Naqvi said.
“I look forward to working with all our community safety and corrections partners, and the federal government to make sure our system is one that respects the rights of individuals, keeps our communities safe, and reflects the values of Ontarians and Canadians.
In May, an Ontario judge awarded $85,000 to two inmates, including an immigration detainee, at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, saying their Charter rights were violated in frequent staffing-related lockdowns.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, whose mandate covers the CBSA, has said he will review the operation and improve scrutiny of the border enforcement agency.
“It is unclear of the criteria of the immigration detainees’ transfers to provincial jails and we are concerned about the arbitrariness of how these decisions are made,” said Macklin.
“When people are subject to both the federal and provincial jurisdiction, they just fall through the cracks and no one takes responsibility.”
The signatories on the latest petition, including former Immigration and Refugee Board chair Peter Showler, urge Ontario to end its agreement with Ottawa to hold immigration detainees in provincial jails and immediately stop accepting transfers of people with physical and mental illnesses.
Since March, at least three immigration detainees have died in custody in provincial jails, including a 39-year-old Chilean, Francisco Javier Romero Astorga, at Maplehurst Correctional Complex, and Melkioro Gahungu, 64, a Burundian detainee at Toronto East Detention Centre. Earlier this month, a 24-year-old man died at the Edmonton Remand Centre.