News / Canada

Immigration detainee Ebrahim Toure marks 5 years without freedom

Toure, now Canada’s longest-serving immigration detainee, is not charged with any crime and is not considered a danger to the public. He has been locked up since 2013 solely because Canada has been unable to deport him.

In October, after a court ruled his detention amounted to "cruel and unusual" treatment, Ebrahim Toure was transferred from a maximum security jail to a less restrictive immigration holding centre in Toronto. While his conditions have improved, he says, "it’s still jail."

Torstar File

In October, after a court ruled his detention amounted to "cruel and unusual" treatment, Ebrahim Toure was transferred from a maximum security jail to a less restrictive immigration holding centre in Toronto. While his conditions have improved, he says, "it’s still jail."

At Ebrahim Toure’s first detention review hearing, three days after he was arrested by Canada’s border police, immigration authorities said his detention was not likely to be “unduly lengthy.”

They just had to get him a travel document and put him on a plane.

That was five years ago. Toure is still behind bars.

The federal government, meanwhile, appears to be no closer to deporting the 46-year-old failed refugee claimant to Gambia, where he is believed to have been born. He has no identity documents and Gambian officials have given no indication they will issue him any.

So Toure continues to wait, with no idea when he will be free.

“What’s going on with me is not right,” he told the Star from inside the Immigration Holding Centre on Rexdale Blvd. in Etobicoke. “You can’t put somebody in jail for five years with no crime.”

Toure, who was profiled last year as part of a Star investigation into Canada’s immigration detention system, has not been charged or convicted of any criminal offence, and he is not considered a danger to the public. He’s detained by Canada Border Services Agency solely because officials believe he will not show up for his deportation, if they can ever arrange it.

Toure spent the first four-and-a-half years of his detention in a maximum security jail in Lindsay, Ont., where he was mixed with and treated the same as sentenced criminals and those awaiting trial. In October, he was transferred to the less restrictive Immigration Holding Centre after a Superior Court judge ruled the conditions of his detention were “grossly disproportionate” to the purpose of ensuring his deportation and amounted to “cruel and unusual” treatment.

But Justice Alfred O’Marra also said the government still had the right to hold Toure because there was a reasonable prospect he could be deported within a “reasonable” time frame. He made this finding primarily on the basis of what government lawyers described as a “pending” interview between Toure and Gambian officials that they hoped would lead to those officials issuing Toure identity documents.

Five months later, the interview still hasn’t happened, Toure’s lawyer said.

“As far as I know, they haven’t made any progress whatsoever,” said Jared Will, who is appealing O’Marra’s decision.

“The problem with (O’Marra’s) finding is that there was literally no evidence that the interview was going to happen,” Will said, adding that the government also gave no evidence that, even if the interview did occur, Gambian officials would co-operate. “It was speculation on speculation, and somehow that was taken to add up to a reasonable prospect of removal.”

Gambia’s embassy in Washington, which handles diplomatic and consular affairs for Canada, did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment on Toure’s situation.

John Ossowski, the president of Canada Border Services Agency, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Star emailed a list of questions to the CBSA on Feb. 14, asking, among other things, if the agency still believed it could deport Toure and if it was any closer to arranging an interview with Gambian officials.

The agency provided a general response on Friday that did not directly answer any of the questions.

“It is not the practice of the CBSA to publicly comment on its operations or negotiations with a foreign government,” reads part of the unattributed response.

At Toure’s monthly quasi-judicial detention reviews at the Immigration and Refugee Board, immigration authorities blame him for his prolonged detention, saying his lack of co-operation is thwarting their efforts to remove him.

They point to the fact that for the first two-and-a-half years of his detention, Toure said he was from Guinea, not Gambia. He was, in fact, nearly deported to Guinea just one month into his detention on the basis of what appeared to be a Guinean birth certificate. Canadian officials escorted him to the West African country, but when they arrived, Guinean border officials said Toure’s birth certificate was fake.

Toure, who is illiterate and has no formal education, isn’t certain where he was born. He says he believes he was born in Gambia, where his late father was born, but he also spent time in Guinea, where he says his late mother was from. “Guinea and Gambia are the same to me,” he said.

Toure arrived in Canada in 2011 with a fraudulent French passport — he says he paid a cousin to use it — and within a few days had applied for refugee status in his own name.

After his refugee claim was denied, he was given a deportation order and subsequently arrested when he missed an appointment with immigration officials. He said he initially insisted he was from Guinea because he thought it was his best chance of getting out of detention. He said he has never held any legitimate identity documents and he has co-operated as much as possible with Canadian officials.

The CBSA believes Toure’s name is actually Bakaba Touray, based on a 2015 interview they say Gambian police conducted on their behalf with Toure’s mother, who is believed to have died two years ago.

Toure says Bakaba is a familial nickname, while his lawyer argued in court that for someone who is illiterate, there is no difference between the two spellings of his last name.

Toure is the longest-serving immigration detainee currently in detention, although previous detainees have been held longer.

Kashif Ali, who similarly could not be deported because of a lack of identity documents, was detained in a maximum security jail for seven years before a Superior Court judge ordered his release last April, saying Canada “could not purport to hold someone in detention forever.”

Critics of Canada’s immigration detention system, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, have called on Ottawa to establish a maximum time that someone can be held in detention.

The limit is 18 months throughout the European Union, while some member countries have set shorter limits, such as three months or a year. Canada, like the U.S., U.K. and Australia, has no limit.

“It’s shameful,” said Will, speaking of Toure’s five years behind bars. “We’re not talking about anything that’s even within the neighbourhood of international standards for the duration of immigration detention.”

Toure, whose only criminal offence is a 13-year-old conviction for selling counterfeit CDs and DVDs in Atlanta, for which he served no jail time, says his mental health has deteriorated. He hears voices and has trouble sleeping. A psychiatric assessment arranged by his lawyers for last year’s court challenge found that he suffers from “major problems” in his psychiatric health, including auditory and visual hallucinations. Psychiatrist Donald Payne testified that although he couldn’t speak to Toure’s mental health before detention, any more time behind bars would make it worse.

Toure said the conditions of his detention are better now that he’s not in a maximum security jail. He isn’t subject to regular strip searches and doesn’t have to wear an orange jumpsuit. There are no lockdowns, as there were so often in Lindsay, when he would be confined to his cell for days at a time. The guards are nicer, too, he said. “But it’s still jail.”

Toure said he is not trying to stay in Canada. He wants the government to “hurry up” and deport him.

“I never thought I would be here this long,” he said. “If I get out I’ll be happy, but I can’t get these five years back.”

His next detention review hearing is Tuesday.

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