Hunger strikes in Laval immigration detention centre highlight dire conditions, COVID-19 risks

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Detention centre fencing in Australia. Image credit: David Stanley/Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of March 16, after just five days' notice, "Marlon," a detainee at the Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) in Laval, Quebec, was deported. Marlon had led hunger strikes to protest the conditions at the IHC. Indeed, Marlon -- the pseudonym used by a man that Amnesty International interviewed days before his removal -- had himself tested positive for COVID-19 in February.

In the past year, detainees at the IHC have resorted to hunger strikes on three previous occasions, with the most recent taking place in the past weeks. At least five cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among the detainees, and several others are reportedly being held in isolation. Visitation has been suspended since March 2020, and a February 2021 outbreak meant that detainees were only allowed out of their cells to shower or make phone calls.

Solidarity Across Borders, a migrant justice network based in Montreal, published the striking detainees' declaration. They denounce the conditions at the IHC, recount allegations of inadequate health care, and characterize immigration detention as an inhuman and unjust policy. They ask to be released from the IHC because of the ongoing risk of COVID-19 in the facility, to be treated with dignity, and to be protected.

The detainees' demands are simple, and they are rooted in fundamental human rights. People who are detained by Canada -- whether in jails, or for administrative reasons like immigration detention -- are not to be held in conditions that imperil their physical or mental health. And yet, at the Laval IHC, this is exactly what is happening.

Marlon told us that when he tested positive for COVID-19, he was moved to a small and dirty cell in isolation, and that the only medical attention he received was to have his temperature taken regularly. Even when he had a fever for several days, he says he did not receive any medication to reduce it.

The anxiety of not having basic information about his own health in the context of a deadly pandemic was extremely stressful. "To me, it is very inhumane," said Marlon.

Marlon and the other detainees' complaints aren't difficult to understand. Detention centres are populated by migrants entering from different parts of the world, and staff who enter and leave can also become vectors for the virus. Moreover, detainees report that guards at times remove their masks, or don't wear gloves, and it is easy to see why the detainees were motivated to engage in this bold act of resistance.

Another issue highlighted by the detainees is the expansive use of solitary confinement. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, colloquially known as the "Nelson Mandela Rules," defines solitary confinement as 22 hours or more than a day without meaningful human contact, limits its use to exceptional circumstances as a last resort, and prohibits its use in excess of 15 consecutive days. Canada purported to abolish the practice in jails in 2019.

While much attention has been paid to the use of solitary confinement in Canadian jails, especially given a recent report about its ongoing use, safeguards against the practice do not exist for immigration detainees held at detention centres. One detainee, using the pseudonym "José," affirmed that he spent more than 22 hours in isolation, and the Laval detainees report being held in "separate rooms without receiving any psychological assistance." While the detainees are right to call for psychological support to mitigate the pernicious effects of isolation, not even this pandemic justifies such treatment in the first place. Most of us have learned to engage in safe, socially distanced interaction with others -- why is this not possible for those detained at the IHC?

Immigration detention doesn't have to look like this. Great reductions in the number of immigration detainees since the outset of the pandemic shows that alternatives are available if we have the will to use them. Canada should reduce, to an absolute minimum, the number of people being held in immigration detention, and in all instances must ensure that the health and well-being of detainees is upheld. If this cannot be ensured, and detainees do not pose a risk to society, they should be released.

Pandemic or not, Canada must live up to its international legal obligations to those it deprives of their liberty. When detention isn't consistent with human rights, it mustn't be used at all.

Justin Mohammed is the Human Rights Law and Policy Campaigner at Amnesty International Canada (English Section).

Marisa Berry Mendéz is the Tactical Campaigner at Amnesty International Canada (Francophone Section).

Image credit: David Stanley/Wikimedia Commons

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