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  • Activists protest Canada

    Activists protest Canada's immigration policy at the May Day march in Toronto, May 2, 2009. | Photo: Creative Commons / Tania Liu

Published 14 July 2016

Canada is the only western nation with a policy of indefinite immigrant detention, and over a third of detainees are held in maximum security prisons.

Nearly 60 immigrant men at two Ontario maximum security prisons Thursday entered the fourth day of a hunger strike to protest the Canadian policy of indefinite immigration detention that denies immigrants access to any judicial process.

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The immediate aim of the strikers is to pressure Ontario’s Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to meet with the detainees to discuss concerns about indefinite detention, and the use maximum security prisons for immigrants who have not been charged with crimes.

“These immigration detainees are starving themselves, and the things that they want are just for Canada to follow international law and end maximum security indefinite detention,” Tings Chak, a member of the End Immigration Detention Network, told teleSUR by phone Thursday. “It is absolutely necessary that the minister meets with them and begins that conversation.”

Canada is a rogue nation when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. The United States and European Union have laws limiting the length of detention, and the United Nations also recommends limits on detention periods. The U.N. has condemned Canada’s arbitrary system and called for an end to “rights violations against vulnerable non-citizens.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission has also called for reforms to the system.

“Immigration is an administrative matter, which means that it is not a criminal law,” said Chak. “There’s no charges, no trial. People are just locked up for years at a time.”

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She added that there are many “heartbreaking stories” of how the men on hunger strike and many others have wound up and gotten stuck for years in immigration detention, including instances of apparent racial profiling.

Some of the hunger strikers are already in ill health, and the protest could put them at risk, especially in the face of limited access to health care while in detention, according to the End Immigration Detention Network.

Chak explained that it is not unprecedented for protesters inside detention centers to face repercussions for speaking out. She said it is often difficult to get information from the strikers, as they are often segregated from the general population and kept on lockdown where they are kept in their cell for up to 22 hours per day and their contact with their families and health professionals is restricted.

The hunger strikers are likely to face “more intensified treatment” for launching the action, Chak said, adding that despite the consequences, these men see the strike as their only option.

According to the End Immigration Detention Network, the strikers have been organizing around these issues since 2013 but elected officials—including Goodale—have been unwilling to meet with them. The watchdog organization has been calling on supporters to petition the minister’s office to meet strikers’ demands.

But so far Goodale’s sole response to the hunger strike has been a statement this week claiming that immigration detention is a “last resort” policy, even while the immigrant justice organization No One is Illegal has long described it as a “first resort.”

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Outrage over the violation of immigrants’ rights and demands for the government to overhaul immigration policies were recently stoked when two immigrant detainees tragically died in provincial prisons within a week in Ontario, the last in a series of at least 16 deaths in the custody of the Canadian Border Services Agency since 2000. Over the half of the deaths resulted from lack of adequate medical care, and three were suicides.

Chak contends that the deaths in detention “clearly indicate what a crisis moment” is rocking Canada’s immigration system.

In statements, the men on hunger strike at the Central East Correctional Center in Lindsay, Ontario, and the Toronto East Detention Center have explained that their goal is to fight for a fairer alternative to the current immigration detention system, which one detainee described as a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” for people not accused of criminal wrongdoing, let alone convicted.

Between 2006 and 2014, under the Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada jailed over 87,000 immigrants without charge or trial, according to the End Immigration Detention Network.

While Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gestured toward some reforms to immigration policy, including possible oversight of the Canadian Border Services Agency, indefinite detention still remains a cornerstone of the country’s border control regime.

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