24-year-old man dies in CBSA detention facility

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A 24-year-old man detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) died in the Edmonton Remand Centre this past weekend, on Saturday May 14.

He “died alone in his cell, under what appears to be non-suspicious circumstances”, said Lisa Shankaruk, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General. The CBSA announced that it is reviewing the circumstances of the death, but will not reveal the deceased man’s identity and nationality.

This latest incident was the third in the past few months, following the deaths of 39-year-old Chilean, Francisco Javier Romero Astorga, at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton and Melioro Gahungu, 64, a Burundian detainee at Toronto East Detention Centre. Both died in March.  The End Immigration Detention Network said that, across Canada, 15 people have died in immigration detention while in CBSA custody since 2000.

The Canadian government said it “can and must do better” when it comes to taking care of immigration detainees after many advocates have repeated warnings that mentally ill detainees are often held in provincial jails. In fact, the CBSA transfers detainees from its holding centres to provincial jails if they pose a danger to others, have physical and mental health needs or are unlikely to qualify for early release.

Travis O’Brien, CBSA spokesman for the Greater Toronto Area, confirmed on Saturday that the agency places immigration detainees with serious health problems in jails to enable them to receive proper medical care. He noted that providing access to medical care is a priority for the agency, especially for vulnerable individuals.

However, many have very contrary views of the situation at hand. Yesterday, A group of 130 doctors, nurses and social workers signed a petition in order to urge the province to stop jailing migrants, especially those with health concerns.

For example, Dr. Ritika Goel, a Toronto family doctor, said the migrant population is particularly vulnerable because many have fled war and persecution and suffer depression, anxiety and trauma. Consequently, incarceration can make it worse for those with pre-existing mental illnesses who should rather be transferred to hospitals for proper care.

Anthony Navaneelan, staff lawyer at the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario, further explained that the medical care in provincial jails is not primarily about treating the person. It is about “controlling their symptoms so they will be compliant in the institution.”

In addition, once the detainees are at provincial jails, they not only end up being treated as criminals even though they have done nothing wrong, but also fall into a legal black hole, he says. Detainees are denied adequate notice, written reasons, disclosure of the facts of their cases, and the right to call a lawyer.  O’Brien also confirm that detainees are not given much notice and no written reasons when being transferred. “That’s totally different than how we treat criminal inmates,” says Navaneelan.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who has said previously that he is concerned about the deaths, revealed in a statement released Sunday that the Liberal government is reviewing the detention program.

An adequate response to this issue is urgent. As Karin Baqi of End Immigration Detention Network strongly claimed, “how many immigrants will be denied immigration status and then jailed to death before the federal government once and for all ends immigration detention?”

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.