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23 April 2021 – Canada

J. Kestler-D’Amours, “Immigration Detainees Are on a Hunger Strike Over Coronavirus Fears,” Vice, 26 March 2020,
J. Kestler-D’Amours, “Immigration Detainees Are on a Hunger Strike Over Coronavirus Fears,” Vice, 26 March 2020,

[From the GDP’s April 2021 Canada Report]

As previously reported on this platform, calls for releasing people in prisons and other Canadian detention settings began soon after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-March, immigration detainees submitted an open letter to Canada’s Public Safety Minister demanding their release—pointing to the close quarters where they were held, the lack of medical checks for newly arriving detainees, and the frequent comings and goings of guards Shortly thereafter, detainees at the Laval IHC launched a hunger strike to highlight their fears that conditions in the facility would lead to a “coronavirus disaster. In April 2020, a large outbreak of COVID-19 at a medium security federal correctional facility in British Columbia highlighted the acute risks posed by the virus to people in detention settings.

According to data provided by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), by 19 April the number of immigration detainees had been reduced by more than a half. Having recorded 353 foreign nationals in provincial jails and dedicated holding centres on 17 March, by 19 April the number of detainees had decreased to 147—117 of whom were being held in provincial jails. By November 2020, 138 persons remained in detention. Although this decrease was not the result of a general release policy (detainees were instead released following individualised detention review hearings), reports indicate that the threat of exposure to COVID-19 was factored into release decisions. In an analysis of 17 release decisions between mid-March and mid-May 2020 in Ontario and British Columbia, researchers Arbel and Joeck found that the Immigration Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board “recognized COVID-19 as a condition of detention relevant to the release analysis in sixteen cases. In eleven cases, the ID ordered release, at least in part on the basis of COVID-19.”

Despite a temporary halt in deportations, released detainees were kept within deportation procedures, in the form of “alternatives to detention” (ATD) programmes. In particular, a number of people released from detention were required to wear electronic ankle monitors. This was described as a “temporary measure guiding the use of detention and the consideration of alternatives to detention” by the CBSA. In May 2020, the agency reported that the Electronic Monitoring Program was being employed in the Greater Toronto Area and Quebec regions. Observers quickly condemned the programme: Montreal-based NGO Solidarity Across Borders said that it represented an “enormous expansion” in surveillance that would “never stand in any other context.”

Some people who remained in immigration detention centres, meanwhile, expressed frustrations and fears for their safety. In March 2021 it was reported that seven detainees had launched a hunger strike at Laval IHC to protest conditions, amidst reports from community advocates that detainees in the facility had contracted the virus. While the CBSA reports that detainees who test positive are placed in solitary confinement, Solidarity Beyond Borders claimed that CBSA was holding all male detainees in solitary confinement (or “segregation”) as a virus containment measure. A detainee at the facility told The Concordian that cleaning in some parts of the facility was little more than a wipe using a rag, that staff repeatedly took off their masks, and that in the washrooms “blood is smeared on the door from the inside, and mould grows on the shower curtains.”

On 12 August 2020, the CBSA reported that there had been ten confirmed cases of COVID-19 within immigration holding centres (IHCs). Although it did not clarify whether any immigration detainees in provincial facilities had contracted the virus, the CBSA noted that it “continues to work collaboratively with its provincial partners on measures aimed at ensuring the safety and security of CBSA detainees who are being detained in provincial facilities.”

In correspondence with the GDP about whether COVID-related measures had been taken to safeguard immigration detainees in provincial prisons, the Office of the Correctional Investigator was unable to provide any details, stating that to get information about the treatment of immigration detainees in provincial prisons, it is necessary to request the information from “relevant provincial correctional authorities and/or from the provincial ombudsmen.” An immigration lawyer in Canada told the GDP, “There is no publicly available information that would suggest special measures have been instituted for immigration detainees held in provincial jails.” She added that “once immigration detainees are transferred to provincial jails, they come under the jurisdiction of the jails and are generally treated like other inmates in those facilities.”

Having initially stated that asylum seekers entering the country would be required to quarantine upon entry, on 20 March authorities shifted their stance and announced that “a foreign national is prohibited from entering Canada from the United States for the purpose of making a claim for refugee protection.”Several reports indicated that people attempting to seek asylum in Canada were returned to the United States, where they were arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and placed in removal proceedings. Amnesty International responded to these developments, saying in a statement, “Canadian government measures relating to the COVID-19 pandemic must respect human rights standards and obligations under Canadian law, as well as treaties to protect refugee claimants, allowing anyone who enters Canada, whether or not at an official port of entry, to apply for refugee protection.”

Although deportations were temporarily halted in March 2020, they were resumed on 30 November 2020—despite the dangers that removals continued to pose amidst the ongoing pandemic (at the time that they were resumed, Canada was in the midst of a deadly second wave). According to a Reuters report, CBSA data seen by its journalists reveal that during 2020, 12,122 people were removed from the country—the highest number since 2015. (According to the CBSA, these numbers were high because they included people who decided to leave on their own accord.)

One particular case that attracted widespread criticism was that of Ebrahim Touré, who had previously spent five and a half years in detention until his release on bail in 2018. In November 2020 he was temporarily re-detained and informed of his pending deportation, facilitated by the use of—what transpired to be—a fraudulent passport and birth certificate obtained by a CBSA officer. However, following an investigation in Gambia, Gambian authorities confirmed that the passport had been fraudulently issued—prompting the CBSA to pause his deportation until an investigation into the issue had been concluded.