A “golden prison” for immigrants

To improve the conditions of detention of immigrants, Ottawa has just inaugurated a new $50 million “monitoring centre”. Large windows letting in natural light, “recreational spaces” stocked with books and board games, training room, three meals a day: the project aims to offer “humane” treatment to newcomers.

This brand new building, located on Montée Saint-François in Laval, is still a prison. A « golden prison » where dozens of people without criminal records are held against their will, which remains traumatic, say sources familiar with immigration rules.

Some 0.04% of foreign nationals who entered the country in the past year were detained (3,056 out of 7.4 million), according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The average length of detention was 21.9 days.

« Detention is a measure of last resort and all possible options are considered before detaining a person, » said Jacqueline Roby, senior spokesperson for the CBSA. People are detained if the federal agency is not convinced of their identity, if they pose a danger to the public, or if they are deemed to be at risk of absconding.

« The premises are clean, the food is decent, but it’s not a place where you feel good, » says Amos Lusey, a 22-year-old Congolese who has just left a forced stay at the Immigration Monitoring Center. . He spent the equivalent of a month in detention between August and December 2022. The rest of the time he stayed in hospital due to anxiety attacks.

Detention is a measure of last resort and all possible options are considered before detaining a person.

This political science student at the University of Montreal, who arrived in Quebec in 2019, has bad memories of his detention. He even wonders why he was kept under surveillance against his will.

like a criminal

Last August, while he was still at large, Amos Lusey had a dispute with his roommate. The tone rose. The police intervened. Technically, the Congolese found himself « without a fixed address » because of his argument with the friend who shared his accommodation. An immigration officer called to the scene concluded that the Congolese was in an irregular situation.

“I don’t know how this officer made his decision, but suddenly a van arrived and they took me to the detention center in Laval,” he explains.

“I did nothing wrong, but I was treated like a criminal. It devastated me,” says Amos Lusey. We meet him in the small apartment he has shared since the beginning of December with his brother, in La Petite-Patrie in Montreal.

In detention, the student began to show anxiety. He slept badly. He was taken a few times to the Cité-de-la-Santé in Laval. Whenever he walked out of the detention center, he was escorted with leg shackles and handcuffs. One day, Amos Lusey was filmed without permission by a hospital patient who was convinced he was dealing with a criminal.

This incident amplified his anxiety: he feared that the video would end up on social media and that his reputation would be ruined – or that his mother, who lives in Belgium, would see the video of her chained son. « I couldn’t call my mother, because our phone was confiscated in detention, » he says.

Psychological impact

His lawyer, Mr.e Chantal Ianniciello, confirms the trauma experienced by her client. “There is a psychological impact in depriving someone of their freedom. There are some that drag after-effects years after coming out,” she says.

Most of its clients are asylum seekers without identity papers or whose travel documents must be checked. The vast majority of detainees have never had to deal with justice, recalls the lawyer. She estimates that 90% of these people pose no danger.

In addition to having their phones confiscated, people detained at the Immigration Holding Center do not have access to the Internet. They can hardly keep in touch with their loved ones.

“People don’t know how long they are going to be in detention. This uncertainty immediately creates anxiety,” says Jenny Jeanes, coordinator of the detention program at Action Réfugiés Montréal.

This community worker has been going every week since 2005 to the Immigration Monitoring Center in Laval. The new building is « healthier, brighter and more comfortable » than the one that has just closed, confirms Jenny Jeanes. She recognizes the efforts of federal authorities to humanize the treatment of these foreigners, but « detention is still a very strong and very serious control measure », in her opinion.

“The hardest thing for them is being transported in handcuffs to what is a prison for them. They have often experienced violence and persecution by the police in their country of origin,” says Jenny Jeanes.

“The detention center is like a hospital where the doors are locked and security guards patrol,” she explains. Each wing of the building has bedrooms and common areas with TV screens, where people eat their meals. Detainees also have access to a training room, a prayer room and a medical centre. Public telephones, which require a calling card, are also available.

“People complain that they cannot use their mobile phone or a computer connected to the Internet. It complicates their steps to regularize their immigration file,” says Jenny Jeanes.

This aid worker receives so many messages from immigrant families that she has two cell phones. “We are overwhelmed,” she said. His WhatsApp application is not ringing: a message from Venezuela, a message from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a message from a family in the Montreal district of Côte-des-Neiges, all people worried about a loved one in detention…

Independent investigations

Jenny Jeanes laments the lack of an independent mechanism to monitor immigration detention centres. These people without status are among the most vulnerable one can imagine. In order not to jeopardize their plan to settle in Canada, they are reluctant to report abuse or ill-treatment.

She is delighted with the tabling of Bill C-20, which would create a Commission for the review of public complaints aimed in particular at the Canada Border Services Agency. This body could investigate “situations where a staff member is involved in a serious incident (death, serious injury or violation of a law) and make these incidents public”.

The CBSA recalls that a series of alternatives to detention, such as supervision in community organizations and electronic monitoring, have been put in place. The new Laval detention center can accommodate 153 people, but housed 66 as of December 20, 2022; 17 other people were detained in a provincial correctional centre. On the same date, 1,809 people were taking part in an alternative measures to detention program in Quebec.

The duty asked to visit the new Immigration Monitoring Center, erected close to the one that closed its doors, in Laval. CBSA refused us access for confidentiality reasons.

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