One month after the death of 42-year-old hotel worker and Mexican migrant Lucia Vega Jimenez in Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) custody, I received a call from a young Haitian woman at the same prison Lucia had been in. Unlike most detainees, she did not call to ask for legal advice to fight for her release, nor was she seeking support to stop her deportation. She called to ask me if I could find information on preventing the spread of infection. She had just miscarried.
One month after Lucia’s death, another migrant death in detention.
A coroner’s inquest into the death of Lucia is scheduled to begin today. Lucia was found hanging in detention cells at the Vancouver International Airport — what has been referred to as a dungeon — nine months ago. Lucia’s death was kept secret by CBSA for over a month, until community groups revealed the information to media and called for an independent investigation. (These same community groups are now being shut out of the inquest, much like the process of the Missing Women’s Inquiry).
Over the next week, media will focus on whether CBSA responded soon enough. They will question whether prison operations should be offloaded to private companies. They will recommend that CBSA use electronic bracelets as an alternative to detention.
However, the ideological foundation of the prison industrial complex, systemic policies of refugee exclusion, and the cultivation of racist fears to justify migrant detention will remain unchallenged at this inquest. Even if the inquest tries to ignore it, the global crisis of self-harm and deaths in detention centres, aboard teeming ships, and in blistering deserts is unfolding in front of our eyes.
In Canada, there have been a number of migrant deaths in detention, while awaiting deportation, or upon deportation. In the past five years, these include Jan Szamko, Habtom Kibreab, the Walji family, Hossein Blujani, Grise, and Veronica Castro. In the U.S., 106 people have died in immigration detention centres since 2003, and an average of 450 migrants die every year as a result of border militarization policies. The death toll of 3,000 migrants off Europe’s shores this year is already quadruple the numbers from last year. In Australia, almost 2,000 deaths connected with border controls and migrant prisons have been recorded over the past 13 years. This includes the recent death of 24-year-old Iranian asylum-seeker Hamid Kehazaei at the Manus Island detention centre.
These migrant deaths within Western colonial states are not random acts; they are enabled through systematic policies of racism and exclusion. People don’t happen to die in detention or at the border or in cargo ships, they die precisely because securitized detention centres and militarized borders make their bodies, journeys and humanities vulnerable. Geographer Mary Pat Brady describes migrant deaths as “a kind of passive capital punishment.”
Migrant deaths are therefore more accurately described as migrant killings.
Refugee exclusion and migrant detention in Canada
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the historic migrant strike in the Centre East Correctional Centre in Ontario. Over 100 incarcerated migrant detainees are demanding a basic freedom: to not be detained indefinitely. As Amin Mjasiri asked from segregation, “What am I doing in a maximum-security prison for 28 months?” Striking migrants have faced reprisals, with many locked up in segregation or deported.
Over the past 10 years there has been an average of 11,000 migrant detentions per year, including up to 807 children detained each year. In 2013, migrant detainees spent a whopping total of 183,928 days (that’s over 503 years) in immigration detention. According to a ground-breaking report, fewer migrants are being released from detention each year, with a national release rate average of just 15 per cent. One-third of all migrant detainees are held in provincial prisons, including in maximum-security facilities.
Migrants are the only population within Canada who can be incarcerated simply on administrative grounds without being charged with a specific criminal offence. This makes migrant detention incredibly arbitrary and can lead to indefinite detention. There are countless cases of people behind bars for one year, four years, six years, with no release date in sight. Canada is now also becoming one of the few Western countries to practice mandatory detention. Due to Harper’s recent Refugee Exclusion Act, many refugees, including children, face mandatory incarceration upon arrival, such as the Tamil asylum-seekers who were aboard the MV Sun Sea.
For migrants like Lucia, the Refugee Exclusion Act also means a discriminatory two-tier system based on nationality. Countries like Mexico are classified as “safe” — making it essentially impossible to seek asylum — and Canada fast-tracks deportations to these countries. Between 2006 and 2011, CBSA carried out 83,382 deportations. Canada has also imposed visa requirements on Mexico and other countries, making it much harder to even come to Canada, let alone claim asylum. The number of refugee claims has decreased by 50 per cent and the number of accepted refugees has dropped by 25 per cent. Many refugees face limited legal options including no right to appeal, while drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program for refugees means no access to basic health care.
It is evident that Canada’s laws are increasingly geared towards keeping people out unless they represent cheap labour or capital. Refugees are stereotyped as “floods of people” from “over there” who are “fraudulent” or “security threats.” These narratives buttress moral panics about “keeping borders safe and secure,” and hence justify refugee exclusion and migrant detention.
It is tiring to regurgitate statistics on detention, to emphasize that there are children behind bars, to repeat that detainees are incarcerated indefinitely without charge. The reality is that migrants are not seen for their humanity but instead as a problem to be managed. This is not new; anti-migrant racism is central to this settler nation.
The disturbing practice of locking up people for the mere act of migration is part of a broader trend of prison expansion.
Despite the lowest crime rate since 1972, the budget for the Correctional Service of Canada has increased 40 per cent under the Harper government. Most if it is going towards prison expansion, with federal and provincial governments adding 9,700 beds at an estimated cost of $4 billion, which criminology professor Matthew Yeager calls, “the largest prison expansion since the 1930s.”
Prison expansion invariably requires expanding prison populations. In addition to tough-on-migrants legislation, tough-on-crime laws, including mandatory minimum sentencing, will send more people to jail for minor crimes for longer periods of time. About 55 per cent of incarcerated people in Canada are already in pre-trial custody, which means they are actually legally innocent and awaiting trial or bail.
Detention centres and prisons are part of the growing prison industrial complex that overincarcerates Indigenous people, Black people, homeless people, Muslims, and migrants of colour. According to a report tabled in Parliament last year by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada, the number of racialized people in the prison system has increased by 75 per cent and the number of Indigenous people has increased by 46.4 per cent over the last 10 years. One in three women behind bars is Indigenous.
Meanwhile, the number of whites incarcerated has dropped by 3 per cent.
As Angela Davis writes, “Regardless of who has or has not committed crimes, punishment, in brief, can be seen more as a consequence of racialized surveillance.” In North America, we can look to the countless police beatings and killings of Indigenous and Black women and men, such as Jamie Haller, Dudley George, Yvette Smith and Michael Brown, to understand that certain bodies are disciplined as suspicious even before any so-called criminal act has been committed.
Prisons and detention centres perpetuate the notions of “undesirables” based on race, gender, class and nationality, while also criminalizing communities in order to maintain state control, capitalist profits, and social hierarchies. The coroner’s inquest into Lucia’s death may expose some horrifying details about migrant detention, but it will not restore Lucia’s humanity and her right to be free. We therefore have to fully reject migrant and prison industrial complexes, as well as the social landscapes of imprisonment that hold them up. We need to embody an ethical orientation of the world in which all the walls and cages fall, and we are all free.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. The column, “Exception to the Rule,” is about challenging norms, carving space and centring the dispossessed.