Photo: flickr/ Guillermo Ruiz

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Francisco Javier Romero Astorga died in immigration detention on March 13. He was 39 years old, from Chile, a father of four. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), responsible for his detention, has refused to explain how he died.

Indeed, Astorga’s family in Chile has received scant information, beyond the amount they must pay to return his body to them: $10,000.

“Now that we know that he is not the first person to die in immigration detention,” his family wrote in a letter to the Canadian public, “we want an investigation into his death to also tell the truth about what is happening in the Canadian immigration system. How can people be dying in government detention? It is inhuman what immigration detention is doing to people.”

Melkioro Gahungu died in immigration detention on March 7, just six days before the death of Astorga. The 64-year-old refugee from Burundi hanged himself at the Toronto East Detention Centre, where he was being held awaiting deportation.

Like the death of Astorga, the death of Gahungu was shrouded in secrecy, with the CBSA refusing to release any information on the circumstances surrounding it.

There have been at least 12 other deaths in Canadian immigration detention since 2000: Sheik Kudrath, Joseph Fernandes, Jan Szamko, Kevon O’Brien-Phillip, Shawn Dwight Cole, Prince Maxamillion Akamai, Joseph Dunn, Lucia Vega Jimenez, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, and three more detainees whose names are unknown. Canada’s border is populated with casualties.

Inhumane immigration practices admonished internationally

Migrants are the only population in Canada that can be administratively detained for long periods of time, or indefinitely, without being charged or convicted of any crime. There were 7,300 people detained in 2013, the most recent data made available by the government.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act gives the CBSA broad powers to detain migrants if they believe they are a flight risk, a danger to public safety, inadmissible to Canada on security grounds, or inadequately identified. The vast majority, 94.2 per cent, are detained on grounds other than posing a security threat.

Since 2012, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act has “protected” the immigration system by imposing mandatory detention for all migrants designated as “irregular arrivals,” including those as young as 16.  

Immigration detention attaches punishment to circumstances commonly connected with migration and asylum-seeking, particularly for the most vulnerable: lack of documents; “irregular arrival” using smugglers; fear of deportation to one’s country of origin, leading to application of the “flight risk” label.

Children are also incarcerated in Canadian immigration detention centres, despite international law strongly discouraging administrative detention of children. And yet, Canada holds hundreds of children in immigration detention each year.

Some, like Alpha Anawa, were born in detention, and have lived their entire lives unfree.

In Canada, migrants may be detained indefinitely — unlike in the United States, for example, which imposes a 90-day limit on immigration detention. Out of 585 people in immigration detention in November 2013, 60 had been held for over a year. Some have been jailed for more than 10 years, trapped in the carceral limbo of undeportability.

Canada is “one of the few countries that doesn’t have a release period,” immigration consultant Macdonald Scott points out. “We’re a rogue nation.”

In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee castigated Canada for these rogue immigration detention practices.

While detainees are entitled to periodic review of their detention, review often operates on a presumption against release: perversely, the onus is not placed on the state to justify the confiscation of liberty, but on the detainee to demonstrate they deserve freedom.

For many, the indefinite duration of immigration detention makes it worse than a criminal sentence.

Oppressive structures of indefinite detention

A 2015 report by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) found that Canada’s immigration detention regime violates international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The system is a “legal black hole,” according to the report.

But certain government representatives have preferred other analogies to capture the realities of life in immigration detention. “Living conditions at detention centres are like those at a two-star hotel with a bit of security,” Jason Kenney, then-Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, told the House of Commons in 2009, revealing his lack of familiarity with both two-star hotels and detention centres.

Migrants detained in special immigration holding centres in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver are under constant surveillance by cameras and uniformed guards, are separated from their families, have their cellphones and other personal items confiscated, and are subject to punishment by solitary confinement. Those needing hospital treatment are transported in handcuffs and often shackles; one detainee recalls being chained to the dentist’s chair during tooth surgery.

Detention frequently results in profound mental stress and depression, in many cases exacerbating the trauma experienced by those fleeing torture and persecution.

Around one-third of immigration detainees are held in provincial prisons, including maximum-security ones, where they are locked in cells for up to 17 hours per day, strip-searched every time they leave or enter the building, and mixed with those incarcerated for criminal offences. “They treat us like garbage,” said one detainee quoted in the IHRP report.

This is what some scholars call “crimmigration“: the merging of criminal law and immigration law, so that migrants are increasingly seen and treated as criminals. Law renders some people who cross borders “illegal,” and then punishes them harshly.

At the same time, capital travels across borders more freely than ever, with Canadian mining companies and Canadian weapons wreaking death and devastation around the world — producing the very conditions that drive migration.  

“We are here because you destroy our countries,” as the migrant rights slogan goes.

Fundamental reform necessary, not just CBSA oversight

Many Canadian rights organizations have renewed their calls for CBSA oversight in the wake of the deaths of Melkiora Gahungu and Francisco Astorga.

But as migrant justice writer and organizer Syed Hussan argues, changes much deeper than oversight are necessary; rather, we “need a fundamental re-think of immigration policy in this country,” and must work to “collectively build a society where migrants are free to move, return and stay while supporting indigenous struggles for self-determination.”

For oversight alone, without more fundamental reform, will not end the abuses and inhumanity of immigration detention — which should never be indefinite and should never be anything but a last resort, regardless of the amount of oversight.

And oversight will not erode these borders that regulate the inequality of freedom in our globalized world, these borders that confine and wound and kill.

Sign the petition to end indefinite immigration in Canada


Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is the Programming Coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre.

Photo: flickr/ Guillermo Ruiz