Jason Kenney touting his staff's seven-per-cent pay cut during a press conference on October 15, 2020. Image: Jason Kenney/Screenshot of Twitter video

When Canadian government lawyers appeared before the Federal Court of Appeals last week to argue that the United States is a “safe” country for refugees, they neglected to mention that just two weeks earlier, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were choking, beating, pepper-spraying, and breaking the fingers of detained Cameroonian refugees in an effort to force them onto a deportation “death plane” that, upon landing in that strife-torn country, would result in torture and execution.

As the death plane prepared to taxi down the runway, a last-minute reprieve spared a half dozen of the refugees, who were taken off the plane and returned to detention. One of those refugees, “Kenneth,” has a scheduled risk assessment with the Canadian Border Services Agency on the morning of October 30. But significant concerns have been raised that, absent diplomatic pressure from the Canadian government, U.S. officials will feel no obligation to ensure Kenneth is transferred from ICE detention to the Fort Erie port of entry.

As of this writing, it is an unanswered question whether this young man will be returned to torture and the death penalty in Cameroon — all for participating in peaceful protests that were attacked with lethal force by government forces — or whether he can be transferred for the scheduled border interview that would likely prove successful in illustrating why Kenneth is a person in need of protection.

Kenneth is a member of the persecuted Anglophone minority in Cameroon, against whom government attacks rising to the level of crimes against humanity have been documented by the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. Last year, Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Amy Mills said that Canada condemned “violent acts and deplore the significant loss of human life since the beginning of tensions in both regions” of Cameroon where the violence has been most focused.

Deportations as death sentence

Three weeks ago, Amnesty International U.S.A.’s deputy director of advocacy and government relations Adotei Akwei declared, “Given the current conditions in the country, it is extremely likely that anyone who is returned to Cameroon will face a high risk of being detained, beaten, disappeared, tortured, or even killed.” Amnesty further called on the U.S. government “to halt all deportations during this deadly pandemic and are alarmed that it is pursuing these deportations to Cameroon. The United States has both a legal and moral imperative to welcome those fleeing conflict and persecution to the country.”

Despite this call, the U.S. subsequently organized the above-mentioned deportation flight with about 60 Cameroonian and 28 Congolese refugees aboard. Notably, this same flight is the subject of a major multi-individual complaint launched by a series of U.S. immigrant rights groups for coercive ICE mistreatment tantamount to torture.

“An ICE agent came to see me Sunday, September 27, 2020 to try to get me to sign a deportation document,” reports a Cameroonian asylum seeker, identified as D.F. in the complaint. “I said I didn’t want to sign a deportation order. I said I am afraid to go back to my country. He promised me he would torture me. Monday, September 28, 2020, he came again while I was outside to try to force me to sign, I refused to sign. He pressed my neck into the floor. I said, ‘Please, I can’t breathe.’ I lost my blood circulation. Then they took me inside with my hands at my back where there were no cameras.”

Targeting Black migrants

According to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, it appears that deportation efforts have ramped up throughout the pandemic against largely Black refugees. In addition to the death plane to Cameroon, over 600 Haitians have reportedly been deported this month alone (despite the risk of spreading coronavirus to the poorest country in the hemisphere), while in September, mass expulsions deported refugees from Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Sri Lanka.

The alliance notes that Black immigrants are subjected to higher rates of asylum claim rejection, solitary confinement within the world’s largest immigration detention system, refusal of parole, and eventual deportation.

In addition, ICE retaliates against those who speak out about degrading, inhumane conditions of detention and related policies. Notably, the alliance says Cameroonian migrants have been at the forefront of organizing inside detention centres to expose ICE abuses and demand everyone’s freedom. Some of the Cameroonian migrants recently deported had protested in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, while others helped expose ICE’s role in forced hysterectomies and other sterilization procedures forced upon women at the notorious Irwin County Detention Center. 

The U.S. Detention Watch Network explains that the high rates of refugee and immigrant detention are in part due to Obama-era legislation mandating the incarceration of 34,000 human beings at any one time. While that quota existed from 2009 to 2017, its elimination did nothing to stop the Trump administration’s campaign to throw more and more vulnerable individuals and families behind bars.

The network’s report, “Banking on Detention: Local Lockup Quotas & the Immigrant Dragnet,” illustrates how:

“Local quotas, referred to as guaranteed minimums in detention facility contracts, ensure a profit-stream and can be found in at least half of ICE’s field offices. These contractual provisions promise that ICE will pay for a certain number of detention beds regardless of how many people are detained to fill these beds. And as a perverse incentive, ICE agents are then encouraged to increase enforcement in order to maximize taxpayer dollars that are being spent to detain people.”

Asylum claimants face the additional burden of a system stacked with Trump administration appointees. Human Rights Watch reports that 88 per cent of immigration judge appointees in 2018 were former Department of Homeland Security or other government lawyers who had prosecuted asylum seekers. The Board of Immigration Appeals, meanwhile, has seen new appointments from Attorney General William Barr that include two judges who denied every single claim they heard in 2019. 

Canada turns a blind eye

While the brutality of the ICE dragnets, detentions and deportations has been well documented (especially with respect to the separation of children from their parents at the border, a topic that even made it to the final presidential debate last week), the Canadian government continues to insist that the U.S. is a safe country for asylum seekers.

Last July, the Federal Court of Canada rejected the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the U.S. as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court said it was clear that Canada is actively turning away individuals seeking asylum here with the full knowledge that those refugees will be immediately detained upon return to the U.S., where standards for refugee acceptance continue to decline and conditions for those behind bars are cruel. 

Justice Ann McDonald clearly stated that “Canada cannot turn a blind eye to the consequences” of its actions in turning away refugee claimants coming from the U.S. In appealing the judgment, Canadian government lawyers last week stunningly argued that Canada would suffer “irreparable harm” if the ruling stood, and that the U.S. asylum system has “available and effective” safeguards for migrants behind bars, concluding, “When everything else is equal, it is prudent to maintain the status quo.”

But everything else is not equal. Last Friday, organizations including the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, and the Canadian Council of Churches shared updated — and even more damning — evidence that conditions of immigration detention have deteriorated even further during the pandemic.  

Their brief read:

“The evidence before this Court … documents harsh and often inhumane, cruel and unusual immigration detention conditions in the U.S., including for those returned by Canada under the STCA. These conditions include: Detention facilities with punitive conditions; Solitary confinement; Inadequate and/or delayed medical care; Staggering rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment; Cold temperatures; Inadequate/unsafe food/water and lack of accommodation of religious dietary customs. Detention has particularly severe effects on vulnerable asylum seekers, with many survivors of torture or gender-based violence being re-traumatized by the experience. Detainees with sensitive claims including LGBT claimants and survivors of sexual violence may be unable to prepare for their case as a result of the lack of private meeting space and fear of attacks by other detainees. Other detainees suffer because religious practices are not accommodated. Racialized detainees often suffer racism and abuse motivated by hate while in detention. Most notoriously detention in the U.S. often includes the detention of children or separation of children from their parents.”

The refugee advocacy groups also reminded the Federal Court of Appeal that “Contrary to Canadian law and international norms the U.S. interpretation of the refugee definition excludes protection for women fleeing gender-based persecution at the hands of private actors.” They concluded that with respect to harm, “it is not in the public interest to maintain a regime that exposes refugee claimants to a risk of detention in conditions that are now even worse” than those which Justice McDonald found “shock the conscience.”

Saving the life of Kenneth

It is under such conditions that Kenneth has spent the past two years of his life. While he is currently in solitary confinement in a Texas ICE facility, he fears once more being placed on a deportation flight.

Kenneth fled Cameroon as a member of the persecuted English-speaking minority. Following his participation in peaceful political protests that were violently attacked by government forces, he was sought by authorities, arrested and beaten in jail. His family home was attacked and his sister raped by military forces.

After escaping, he learned that he was the subject of a warrant issued by the Cameroon ministry of justice. He faces charges of secession, insurrection and hostility against the fatherland (all for taking part in peaceful protests). Under Cameroonian law, secession is punishable by imprisonment for life, or by death when there is a state of emergency; insurrection is punishable by imprisonment for 10 to 20 years; and hostility against the fatherland is punishable by death. 

Affidavits from a family lawyer, village chief and family members subsequent to Kenneth’s escaping Cameroon attest to the fact that he is still wanted by authorities, and that the family itself has faced continued repression as a result, including beatings, the arrest and indefinite detention of a brother, the burning down of the family home, and the resultant need for remaining family members to live in hiding in the bush. 

With the support of his adopted American mother Florence, a retired special education teacher in Leeds, Alabama, Kenneth has been fighting to be freed from detention and accepted as a refugee in the U.S. But the clock is ticking for him as a Trump administration operating at breakneck speed is ramping up deportations and engaging in illegal activities to ensure those deportations are executed.

While Florence has been engaged in non-stop advocacy on Kenneth’s behalf — including reaching out to Canadian contacts to arrange what is a very rare port of entry interview with the Canadian Border Services Agency — she is gravely concerned that unless Ottawa intervenes with its U.S. counterparts, that October 30 appointment will not be honoured by ICE, and Kenneth will either remain detained or deported to his death.

A petition calling on the Canadian government to act decisively in Kenneth’s case is available for signing and sharing, part of a last-minute effort to make a huge difference in the life of a 29-year-old man whose dream of a new life seems so close — and yet so elusive — as the calendar counts down to October 30.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image: contributed photo

Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.