Today migrants at the Laval Immigration Detention Centre entered their sixth day of a hunger strike. Yesterday afternoon, March 28, more than 30 medical professionals, human rights organizers, and supporters from across the country came together virtually for a press conference to denounce the catastrophic legal, medical, and moral consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on incarcerated migrants.
Despite considerable pressure from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), detainees have been refusing all meals since Wednesday. Confined in close quarters and exposed to the coming and going of guards, food and maintenance personnel, social distancing measures are impossible to observe and the risk of COVID-19 transmission is real.
The strike is unfolding as calls to release prisoners multiply. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on governments earlier this week to “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention,” noting the extremely high risk posed in detention facilities where social isolation and physical distancing are impossible. Similarly, the European Council has urged that administrative detainees be released.
Supporters at the virtual press conference highlighted the Canadian government’s involvement in creating conditions that displace people around the world and force them to migrate. They called for the immediate release of detainees, safe and decent housing for all those released, and an end to new detentions.
“The Canadian state provides unwavering support for extractive projects like Canadian mining, as well as repressive regimes in Central America, which forces people to flee northward. Yet, when refugees and migrants arrive here, they face unjust border restrictions and mistreatment. These harmful policies need to end,” said Stacey Gomez, Maritimes Coordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.
During the virtual press conference, the sister of Abdoul, one of the hunger strikers, said she was outraged that no official had responded to the situation. “We are in the midst of a global crisis and are being informed of measures to protect ourselves from this virus. Don’t the detainees at the Laval Immigration Detention Centre deserve the same treatment?”
Alexandra Pierre, of the Ligue des Droits et Libertés, said her organization is increasingly concerned, both for the health and safety of the detainees at the Laval Immigration Detention Centre, and for public health. “To avoid a public health disaster, they must be released and we must prevent others from being detained,” she said. “Imprisoning people who, for example, are refugee claimants or whose papers have expired, is already a violation of their fundamental rights. Furthermore, in the context of the pandemic, we are disregarding their right to safety, to health and event to life. It’s unacceptable!”
Another speaker at the virtual event was Nanky Rai, a medical doctor at the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto. “It’s impossible to enact public health measures necessary to prevent the explosive spread of COVID-19 infection among those held in detention centres and prisons,” said Rai. “Authorities must release all those detained across the country including those hunger striking at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre. This is a matter of life and death in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic.”
“It is unacceptable that these men felt that they had no choice but to stop eating to demand that they be treated with the same precautions as everyone else. We call on the Canadian government to immediately take serious action to protect them and other prisoners so that they can stop the hunger strike before their health is harmed”, said Safa Chebbi, of Solidarity Across Borders.
Click here to take action in solidarity with migrants detained at the Laval Immigrant Detention Centre.