Why immigration holding centres could become COVID-19 hot spots

TVO.org has learned that a Toronto Immigration Holding Centre employee has tested positive. Experts have warned that action must be taken to protect detainees and staff
By Tebasum Durrani - Published on Mar 30, 2020
The Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, in Rexdale, is capable of accommodating 183 detainees at once. (Google Maps)

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The Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, in Rexdale, is one of three such facilities administered by the Canadian Border Services Agency. Experts say that, if significant measures aren’t taken, these centres, which last year housed thousands of detainees, could soon also be caught up in a growing public-health crisis, as the country grapples with the spread of COVID-19.

"The worry is that [these facilities] are going to be a breeding ground for the transmission of the virus," says Petra Molnar, acting director of the international human-rights program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

In fact, TVO.org has learned that there’s been one confirmed case of COVID-19 connected with the Toronto centre, which is capable of accommodating 183 detainees. In an email, a spokesperson stated, “The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) can confirm that an employee at Toronto’s Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) has tested positive for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. We can also tell you that there are no confirmed cases of detained persons with COVID-19 at the Toronto IHC.”

The spokesperson added that the employee had begun exhibiting symptoms at home on the night of March 18 and has since been in self-isolation.

Immigration holding centres are medium-security facilities used only for immigration detainees — foreign nationals or permanent residents detained because they are subject to a removal order or are having their admissibility assessed. There are no time limits on specific detentions.

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the CBSA can detain permanent residents or foreign nationals if they are deemed to pose a safety risk, if there are concerns that they won’t appear for an immigration proceeding, or if they cannot establish their identity.

Experts are urging the federal government to take steps to protect residents from the virus. Macdonald Scott, a Toronto-based immigration consultant, says it should release some detainees: “In the midst of a public-health crisis, why are we keeping people in such compressed spaces — putting detainees, guards, and our society at risk?”

Other levels of government have taken such steps: on March 20, Ontario announced that it would release some low-risk inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences. The Ministry of the Solicitor General indicated that it would grant temporary absences to some prisoners serving intermittent sentences, which are served mostly on weekends.

According to another CBSA spokesperson, federal immigration holding centres have introduced increased precautions: all new arrivals are screened for COVID-19, and any detainee who meets the Public Health Agency of Canada’s recommendations for self-isolation is required to do so under medical supervision. “We are also limiting the [number] of detainees taking their meal at the same time in the cafeteria,” the spokesperson stated in an email. “And we have installed a hand-sanitization station at the entry of the eating area.”

But some in a Quebec facility have expressed concerns. Earlier this month, detainees in a holding centre in Laval sent a handwritten request to the CBSA and Bill Blair, the federal minister of public safety, in which they said that they believe they are at high risk of contracting the virus and asked to be released. They have since started a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention.

Mary Foster, of the Montreal advocacy group Solidarity Across Borders, says that some detainees in Laval have reported that social distancing is not being practised — detainees, for example, continue to eat meals in large groups — and that new arrivals are not being tested for COVID-19. “They are concerned for their health, worried about their families,” Foster says. “It is a really stressful, terrible situation to be in.”

Advocates say it may just be a matter of time before detainees in this province follow suit. “We may well see similar actions, as there is a very real risk that detainees in Ontario will be stuck in detention and possibly exposed,” says Nisha Toomey, a member of the End Immigration Detention Network.

Scott says that these facilities are not conducive to proper social-distancing practices. “The Toronto holding centre is a renovated hotel, so you are talking hotel-sized rooms holding at least two people, communal meals in a communal dining room,” he says. “The ability to maintain social distancing for people being held there and staff is basically impossible.”

Some experts and advocates say that, amid the outbreak, these centres no longer serve their intended purpose. The federal government announced a temporary halt to most deportations and has closed the border to asylum seekers. "If deportations are not proceeding right now, I would submit there is no lawful basis for immigration detention," says Sawthi Sekhar, a Toronto lawyer who practises immigration and refugee law. 

Sekhar says COVID-19 amplifies many of the problems that underlie Canada’s immigration-detention system. In 2018-19, for example, 85 per cent of immigration detainees were held because they were “deemed to be unlikely to appear” for an immigration or admissibility hearing. “We don’t know how long this crisis is going to last,” Sekhar says. “So we are basically talking about holding people indefinitely because they can’t be removed.”

The CBSA, Sekhar says, can facilitate alternative forms of release — ones that involve such monitoring tools as phone reporting and ankle bracelets. “If the government is not prepared to just release people,” she adds, “they could consider releasing detainees on their own recognizance.”  

The CBSA told TVO.org via email that it “continues to carefully review all cases in detentions. If risk can be mitigated by an alternative to detention (ATD), including telephone reporting, the CBSA will assess the feasibility of release prior to the 48 hour detention review or recommend release at the detention review.”

The Immigration and Refugee Board, Sekhar notes, has been accepting COVID-19 as a factor for possible release in some cases. But there are concerns about where released detainees could go: they could be released to a bondsperson who agrees to supervise them, but that option isn’t always available, and some end up living in shelters.

Shelters, though, could be an unsafe option — COVID-19 cases were reported in Toronto’s system this week. So Toomey suggests that governments allocate empty or underused buildings, such as hotels, to house detainees: “We need to look at solutions where people can be housed and can practise social distancing safely.”

Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, in Toronto, says that a more coordinated approach is needed in face of the pandemic: “CBSA is doing some things to release people in the context of COVID, but, on the other hand, the police are still detaining people for immigration purposes … which is just absurd.”

The urgency of the situation is top of mind for many advocates and lawyers, including Molnar. “As a society,” she says, “we cannot afford to be morally okay with keeping people locked up and risking an outbreak.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Francisco Rico-Martinez's surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

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