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The number of detainees held in Canada’s immigration holding centres is declining amid COVID-19 fears

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Dozens of people who were held in Canada’s immigration detention facilities have been released over the last week as advocates and lawyers have called for their release amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data obtained from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) by Global News, the total number of immigration detainees held in all three of Canada’s immigration holding centres dropped to 64 as of April 1 from 98 on March 25. 

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There are three immigration holding centres in Canada: one in Laval, Que., one in Toronto, and one in Surrey, B.C. However, hundreds of immigration detainees are held in provincial jails across the country — sometimes indefinitely.

The Toronto immigration holding centre, which has 198 beds, had the biggest drop in detainees, dropping to 21 detainees on April 1 from 41 on March 25. The Laval centre, which has 109 beds, went from 48 detainees to 35. And the Surrey centre went from having nine to eight in that timespan. CBSA said that no minors were in the facilities on those dates. 

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Earlier this week, TVO reported that an employee at the Toronto centre tested positive for COVID-19 and has been in isolation since March 18. So far, no detainees are confirmed to have contracted COVID-19.

A number of legal and advocacy groups have been calling for the release of people in immigration detention “unless they pose a danger to the public.” Canada’s immigration law allows CBSA officers to detain foreign nationals if they believe the person is unlikely to appear for an immigration proceeding like a hearing, if the person is deemed a threat to public safety, or if the person’s identity is under question. 

Jenny Jeanes, the detention coordinator with Action Refugies, an NGO that works with people detained in the Laval immigration holding centre, said that she’s pleased that people are being released, and that the COVID-19 pandemic makes the situation even more urgent. She said that even more detainees at Laval have been released since April 1.

“Releases are picking up. And we were so relieved that after asking for a few weeks, finally some of the [detained] fathers who were separated from their families were released this week on an expedited basis,” Jeanes said in a phone interview. 

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“If people are released, it’s either because whatever issues there were that were leading them to be detained are resolved. So that’s been the case for some people. Some people were released in the past days because their identity was confirmed, (and) they were able to get the information that the CBSA needed to confirm their identity.”

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Last month, detainees at the Laval centre started a hunger strike after sending a petition to the federal ministers of public safety and immigration, asking to be released from the centre over fears of contracting the virus in the facility.

Jeanes said that the hunger strike there was suspended earlier this week “but the distress of those inside has not ended.” Though her group previously conducted visits and work inside the centre multiple times a week, she and her colleagues recently moved to conducting their work remotely because of COVID-19, and have been communicating with Laval detainees over the phone.

“I’ve had people hang up in tears, sobbing with me on the phone this week because they see other people getting released. But they know that that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be released and they’re scared,” Jeanes said. 

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“At the best of times, detention can create anxiety, depression and other negative mental health effects. And I think right now, everybody, we’re all under strain. And so imagine that you’re in detention. It’s that much worse.”

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“As this situation is fluid and evolving rapidly, the CBSA is continuing to closely monitor and assess the state of those in detention. All options are being considered at this time,” a CBSA spokesperson said in an email. “As always, should a detainee in CBSA care be seriously ill and in need of immediate medical attention, they would be referred to the appropriate local or emergency health authority for medical assessment without delay.”

Last week, Legal Aid Ontario said on its website that it was expanding its detention review hearing representation services for immigration detainees. 

“We are pleased that in many cases CBSA is cooperating with detainees and their counsel to develop viable safe release plans; we think all involved recognize the personal and public health issues raised by detention during a pandemic,” Alyssa Manning, manager of Legal Aid Ontario’s immigration detention duty counsel project, said in a statement to Global News.

According to CBSA data, around 7,706 people were held in immigration holding centres in Canada last year, and around 2,249 people were detained by CBSA and held in provincial jails. The average time spent in detention was around 12 days.

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On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why civil servants are still going into work at places like immigration detention facilities when that could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 to those held in the facilities and among employees and their families.

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“We’re going to continue to ensure that essential services get done. Wherever possible, civil servants are encouraged to work remotely from home. We know there are significant things that need to be worked on to deliver for Canadians, to keep Canadians safe at this particular time,” Trudeau said. 

When asked whether the federal government would be releasing non-violent offenders in general, Trudeau said that “action has been taken” and that the government has been working with Corrections Canada and “detention facilities of all types” to reduce the vulnerability to the spread of COVID-19.

We continue to look at other measures that can be taken and we will take those measures in due course.”