Healthcare providers urge Ontario to end immigration detention
A group of 130 doctors, nurses and social workers is asking Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister to end the jailing of immigration detainees.
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Ontario health professionals are urging the province to stop jailing migrants for violating federal immigration laws, especially those with mental and physical health concerns.
A group of 130 physicians, nurses and healthcare providers signed a petition sent Monday to Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi after a string of recent deaths involving immigration detainees, including one over the weekend in a facility in Edmonton.
“These people are not charged with any crime but sometimes held indefinitely in dire circumstances and immigration detention is becoming more routine,” said Dr. Michaela Beder, a psychiatrist at St. Michael’s Hospital.
“People were unaware of this because there’s so little information from officials on when and how people died. We are shocked this is happening. We are calling for an ombudsman and more oversight, and an end of transfers of detainees from federal immigration holding centres to provincial jails.”
In a brief news release, the Canada Border Services Agency said a 24-year-old detainee died Saturday in Alberta and an investigation is underway. However, the agency refused to reveal the deceased man’s identity and nationality or whether his next of kin had been notified.
“In the Prairie Region, the CBSA relies on provincial correctional facilities to detain higher-risk detainees,” said the agency’s spokesperson Elise Gaetz. “The CBSA is committed to ensuring the health and safety of those in its care.
As is the case with any death in custody, the CBSA takes this matter seriously and will complete a review of the circumstances.”
Lisa Shankaruk, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, said the ministry is investigating the death along with Edmonton Police Service and the border agency.
“The inmate appears to have died alone in his cell, under what appears to be non-suspicious circumstances,” said Shankaruk, who declined to reveal further details about the circumstances of the man’s death.
The latest incident in Edmonton was the third in as many months, following the deaths of 39-year-old Chilean, Francisco Javier Romero Astorga, at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton and Melkioro Gahungu, 64, a Burundian detainee at Toronto East Detention Centre. Both died in March.
“How many people will die without charges or trial? How many families will be devastated? How many immigrants will be denied immigration status and then jailed to death before the federal government once and for all ends immigration detention?” asked Karin Baqi of End Immigration Detention Network.
“We call for the release of all immigration detainees immediately, and a comprehensive regularization program for them. It’s clear that the federal government can’t keep them alive in jail, so they must be released.”
According to the advocacy group for detainees, there have been at least 15 deaths of immigration detainees in CBSA care since 2000, including eight in Ontario. While these deaths are subject to mandatory reviews, results have not been made public except in cases where an inquest was called.
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.
However, Dr. Ritika Goel, a Toronto family doctor, said the migrant population is particularly vulnerable because many have fled war and persecution at home and are also suffering depression, anxiety and trauma. Incarceration can make it worse for those with pre-existing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“Detention should only be the last resort. There are options available for treatment and detentions. We just can’t justify the current situation,” Goel said.
Dr. Rachel Kronick, a Toronto psychiatrist who has worked extensively with the refugee community, said she sees every day how immigration enforcement affects the health of her patients.
“Detention is harmful to people. We hope to bring to the attention of our politicians its impact on the health of this marginalized group,” she noted.