“Not a safe place for us”
The first experience of a person seeking asylum in Canada may very well be incarceration. From the moment a person sets foot in the country, the clock starts ticking for a first review before a judge within 24 hours, required by law, to determine if they qualify to be a refugee. Based on a person’s story, but mostly on having the right papers and evidence, the judge will determine whether a person’s fear and endangerment can be verified, and whether they can stay in Canada. If a person is detained in Québec, they are sent to the Laval Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) just north of Montréal.
As the coronavirus hit Québec in mid-March and the provincial government announced spatial distancing measures for the general public, detainees at Laval IHC held a hunger strike to appeal to the public and authorities to take action on their living conditions. Detainees at Laval IHC, which is managed by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), found that conditions at the centre remained unchanged after the announcement of the pandemic. Immigration authorities and guards were taking no significant action to protect the health and lives of people held at the detention centre.
Detained in January of this year, Abdoul was one of five hunger strikers at Laval IHC. Abdoul came to Canada because he feared persecution for his sexual orientation. Speaking with Canadian Dimension over the phone, he described that there is a high chance he could be deported, but that his case has been appealed on humanitarian grounds. During the pandemic lockdown in Québec, he is currently awaiting his hearing with little to no certainty.
After initially submitting a petition to address a lack of protective measures at Laval IHC, detainees saw that little was being done. “After a couple of days, nothing changed, just the fact that they came to see us and asked us to cough in our arm and wash your hands,” Abdoul explained. “We knew that those measures were not enough to protect us.”
“We noticed that is not a safe place for us,” Abdoul described. Detainees organized an indefinite hunger strike. “The hunger strike went on for eight days,” he said. “It was very hard for us.”
Solidarity Across Borders, a migrant justice network closely supporting the detainees at Laval IHC, reported that detainees faced intimidation from guards to break the strike. Security personnel trashed strikers’ rooms, forced isolation from others, and threatened some with incarceration at the Rivière des Prairies prison.
As new people were brought into the detention centre, detainees noticed they were being misled about COVID-19 testing. Abdoul described how there was an impression that the newcomers had been through two medical checks, one at the airport and one at the detention centre.
“Just to be sure, just to be safe, we asked them if that was true,” Abdoul explained. “But they denied it, they said it wasn’t, they’ve never seen [a] doctor, and even when they came to the centre, the doctor they just checked them visually.”
Abdoul said it took two days after exposing this fact to an immigration officer for Laval IHC to implement a fourteen-day quarantine for new arrivals.
Even without the coronavirus outbreak, one person getting ill in the detention centre could easily infect everyone. The largest dormitory at Laval IHC holds up to twenty people at a time, while regular rooms can hold up to five people, sometimes with less than a bed’s width between them. Abdoul described how measures were taken slowly, and after increasing space between beds, occupancy was reduced to about two people per regular room.
“That was after we complained a lot,” said Abdoul. “But for us, it wasn’t much difference because during most of the day, we stayed in the living area, all together for the majority of the day.”
“It was very, very stressful,” he described. “It’s pretty much impossible to stay confined over there, because there are some places in the building where you walk very close to people. Or you cannot, due to the number of people staying, you cannot have that two metre distance at all times.”
Guards going between home and work every day could further expose themselves and detainees to the virus. GardaWorld Security, contracted by Laval IHC, also introduced new guards into the centre in early April, rather than keeping the previously scheduled security personnel.
“The day I went out,” said Abdoul, “there was rumour of one guard that was tested positive and some other guard that was put under quarantine.” Indeed, after remaining silent on the matter for several days, the CBSA was finally pressured into confirming on April 8 that a guard at Laval IHC had tested positive for the coronavirus. “They never took any measures concerning that,” he confirmed. Even weeks later, detainees reported to Solidarity Across Borders that few of the guards were wearing masks and that most still do not keep a safe distance from detainees when approaching them.
Yet, mounting pressure from the hunger strikers, activists and the media has been effective. The last striker was released on April 6. On April 16, Solidarity Across Borders reported that only ten men and two women remained in detention.
The hunger strike ultimately brought attention not only to the conditions during the coronavirus outbreak, but it has shown that the present crisis has exacerbated the unfair conditions that have long been the reality for many.
This begs the question: Why did it take a hunger strike for Laval IHC to implement spatial distancing measures?
A matter of continuity
By March 16, the Canadian government closed the border with the United States to most non-citizens, initially with the controversial exception of U.S. citizens. This closure affects official migrant crossing-points like the Roxboro Road Crossing in Québec, where asylum seekers can legally make a refugee claim.
In June 2019, the Liberal Party passed an omnibus budget bill (C-97) that proposed changes to the asylum seeking process in Canada. In response to the bill’s proposals made public last spring, the Canada Council for Refugees (CCR) stated that asylum seekers could not apply to be refugees in Canada if they had already applied in another country “with whom Canada has an information-sharing agreement”, such as the United States. Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) takes numerous factors into consideration, such as gender and sexual orientation, for assigning status to refugee claimants.
Under C-97, asylum seekers who are deemed ineligible to apply for refugee status in Canada because of previous refugee claims are subject to a separate process called the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, which does not take into consideration the same nuanced factors as the IRB.
In tandem with this change, Bill C-97 also expands the Third Country Agreement, which has been in place since 2004 between Canada and the United States. As a result of the changes, any person seeking refuge in Canada, entering from the U.S., will not be eligible as the U.S. is considered a “safe” country. But with an American president that advocates for a moratorium on immigration, mass deportations and, more recently, militarization of the border with Canada, the Third Country Agreement clearly does not reflect today’s reality.
In its report on the bill’s implications, the CCR stated that asylum seekers who made claims in the U.S. will come to Canada “precisely because the U.S. does not provide the same protections, especially for people whose claim is based on gender or sexual orientation.”
Canada’s two-tiered system also means that migrants who have had their refugee applications refused are “undocumented”, having no official status, and are thus unable to access government services. “The refugee system in Canada is very unfair in that it only recognizes certain people’s fear of returning home,” explained Anna Pringle, member of Solidarity Across Borders.
Québec’s political climate has also become increasingly hostile toward immigration. It was only a few months ago that Coalition Avenir Québec introduced sweeping reforms targeting religious and racialized minorities in the province, including Bill 21. Recent immigration reforms have also scrapped thousands of immigration applications, and now subject new immigrants to “value testing”. So it is broadly reflective of Canada’s real view of asylum seekers, when they are incarcerated a stone’s throw from criminal prisons and are subject to negligence and mistreatment at the hands of the CBSA and GardaWorld Security in the middle of a global pandemic.
Across the street from the existing Laval IHC, located between multiple criminal prison complexes, a new site has been slated for the construction of a replacement migrant prison, intended to be operational by 2021. The contract was jointly awarded to the Québec architecture firms Lemay and Groupe A, and construction firm Tisseur.
The construction of the replacement detention centre is part of a $138 million National Immigration Detention Framework, announced by Liberal Minister Ralph Goodale in 2016. Part of the funding is also going toward the construction of a migrant prison in Surrey, British Columbia. Only $5 million of the budget is going toward “alternatives” to detention, tested in Toronto, which the CBSA announced in 2018. These alternatives include arranging for NGOs like the Salvation Army to enforce “community supervision”, biometric voiceprint technology for reporting, and electronic surveillance of migrants.
Reflecting on over two months of detention at Laval IHC, Abdoul described the detainees’ shared experience of treatment by many of the guards. “We complained a lot about the guards disrespecting people,” he said. “Some people were complaining about humiliation, some others were complaining about racist jokes or racist comments.”
Activists have long raised the alarm about the conditions at Laval IHC.
Muhamed Barry is a community organizer for the Guinean Committee for Status for All. Muhamed has been advocating for Canadian authorities to validate the threat of violence and repression by the Guinean government, and to recognize the impacts of the Canadian mining industry across West Africa.
Like Abdoul, Muhamed was detained in 2015 at the Laval IHC. He stays in contact with new detainees to provide support through the Solidarity Across Borders network. “People are treated like prisoners,” he said about the conditions even before the pandemic. “They handcuff them, they put them in a van without windows. It is not respectful.” Muhamed’s voice grew quieter on the phone when he spoke about the treatment of detainees and those he knows had participated in the hunger strike: “We are just like everyone else.”
Aside from the stress of the pandemic and conditions of detainment, the coronavirus crisis has simply put deportations on pause.
Released in early April after the hunger strike, Abdoul is now staying with family, who have had to put up a bond of over $700 to allow him to live outside of the detention centre. Deposits like this, according to the CBSA’s website, take six to eight weeks to return after immigration proceedings. Abdoul’s release is conditional: he still has to make calls to the immigration office, and sometimes go in person to sign papers.
Like most other social services, legal support for asylum seekers has become more difficult to access. While people wait for decisions on their status, sometimes with a high chance of deportation, non-profit legal aid struggles to keep up. The fate of migrants can be easily compromised by administrative errors. These can include late submissions of paperwork by overworked lawyers, simple clerical errors by immigration officers, or authorities making assumptions about family relationships. These mistakes can have life or death consequences.
Navigating the crisis
Community support has been key in allowing detainees to navigate the challenges posed by the coronavirus. In his neighbourhood of Ville-Saint-Laurent, Muhamed sometimes relies on the help of friends to get groceries as he occasionally needs to use a cane to get around. Though he has stability in the midst of the pandemic with his own apartment and medical coverage, he knows many others who are in need. “It’s really tough for them,” he remarked, thinking of those who have lost their jobs or those who cannot access financial support systems like employment insurance.
According to Solidarity Across Borders, “For refugees with legal status, though they might be able to access emergency income assistance programs or social assistance, these are terrible and uncertain bureaucracies to be thrown into and navigate.” Access to programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) may also be difficult for newcomers or workers with unstable incomes, as the program is restricted to people who have earned a minimum of $5,000 in the past year.
But the impact of coronavirus is particularly daunting for non-status members of the community who are excluded from emergency support measures by all levels of the Canadian government. “The federal government and the province, none of them are talking about undocumented people,” said Muhamed.
“These people are living in fear all the time. They are not safe even if it’s not the pandemic, and the pandemic is getting worse and worse,” he explained. “And those people are part of this society. They’re working, or they’ve been working here for many years, they are well integrated. I don’t see why they are left behind.”
“This is not supposed to be. No one should be left behind.”
Even with some protection under the Régie du logement’s moratorium on evictions, the threat for people without status is staggeringly different. As Solidarity Across Borders noted, landlords can take advantage of tenants “financially, psychologically, or sexually”, and undocumented people can be coerced or threatened with calls to police or immigration authorities.
Many have to continue working in precarious conditions, often endangering their health, and the health of their families. Recent coverage of conditions in Dollarama warehouses, which have been kept open in Québec as an essential business, has highlighted the exploitation faced by temporary and migrant workers. Economic instability in Québec, exacerbated by the pandemic, also affects families living abroad who rely on income support, extending the economic crisis far beyond Canada’s borders. “Many people continue to provide support to their families,” Anna explained, “and in the current crisis, this becomes more difficult at a time when those families are also under stress.”
The province has taken some positive action in opening services, however, which allows people with and without status to receive testing and treatment specifically for COVID-19. According to Solidarity Across Borders, “this opening up of services shows that it is indeed possible, and that healthcare should continue to be accessible for all after this current crisis passes.” The biggest challenge in this regard, however, may be communicating to people that they are entitled to free treatment. “We worry that hospitals will continue to pressure people to pay for hospitalization during the crisis because they haven’t been properly briefed that treatment for COVID-19 is free for all.”
But where the Canadian government has failed the most vulnerable people, asylum seekers have found and created their own networks of community support. Abdoul and Muhamed both work with Solidarity Across Borders to help others who have been detained at Laval or who need support, and inquiries into migrant workers’ conditions continue through Montréal’s Immigrant Workers’ Centre. This work offers dignity, support and hope within a system that often exacerbates inequities.
As provincial regulations become more relaxed over the coming months, the pandemic should act as a wake-up call for the Canadian public by exposing the terrrible conditions facing detained migrants. The coronavirus crisis has deeply affected those who have always been forced into precarity under capitalism, who are endangered by detached, bureaucratic decisions on their status, and who may be unable to access the social services upon which so many Canadians now desperately depend.
While the crisis is challenging, Abdoul and Muhamed’s experiences show the power of resilience among community members who support one another through immense challenges, and the impacts of brave actions that demand for action and accountability in systems that actively work to resist them.
Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Solidarity Across Borders continues to work with undocumented community members throughout the COVID-19 crisis and encourages those who need support to get in contact. For those without status, Solidarity Across Borders has an active fundraiser to help support them during this time. You can also visit the website of the Migrant Rights Network to access their income support resources for migrants in Canada.
Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.