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Coronavirus fears spark calls for migrants to be released from B.C. holding centre

Protesters stand near signs posted at the Surrey Immigration Holding Centre calling for the release of detained migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 19, 2020.
Protesters stand near signs posted at the Surrey Immigration Holding Centre calling for the release of detained migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 19, 2020. Twitter/@pjdvancouver

A group of protesters outside the Surrey Immigration Holding Centre on Sunday joined a nationwide call for detained migrants to be released from custody amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The protest was one of five that took place outside centres in Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Ont., and Montreal in partnership with Solidarity Across Borders, a migrant justice group based in Montreal.

The so-called Multi-City Caravan Against Imprisonment was sparked by an eight-day hunger strike started by several migrants detained at the Laval Immigration Monitoring Centre in Quebec.

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

The strike was held in order to gain release and medical attention for the detainees, who claimed they were being pressured and intimidated by centre officials who were maintaining poor conditions inside.

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Meenakshi Mannoe, a campaigner with the Pivot Legal Society, said migrant detention centres are potential hotbeds for COVID-19 to spread among detainees and staff, similar to prisons.

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She pointed to the outbreak at the federal Mission Institution in B.C., where 60 inmates and 10 staff have tested positive for the disease, and one inmate is believed to have died due to complications caused by COVID-19.

Migrant workers and foreign students calling for financial aid
Migrant workers and foreign students calling for financial aid

Outbreaks have been confirmed at other federal and provincial prisons in B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

“They’re not able to socially distance or self-isolate, which is what everyone else is being required to do,” Mannoe said. “We are really looking to the government to [release] these people rapidly.”

Mannoe said she and other advocates wrote to Canada’s Public Safety Minister Bill Blair earlier this month to call attention to the issue, but have not yet received a response.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Four men continue hunger strike at immigration monitoring centre in Laval

Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Border Services Agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mannoe said the group is calling for detained migrants to be released into “the community.”

“People need access to self-contained units where they can quarantine for 14 days as is appropriate, as anyone is required to if they’re entering Canada,” she said.

She added the protesters will continue to return to the Surrey holding centre until the migrants are released.