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Minister Goodale: Immigrant Detainees Are Running Out Of Time

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Over 50 black and brown men have been on a hunger strike since July 11 protesting their inhumane separation from their families. The hunger strikers have three simple demands: (1) to meet with Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, to (2) end indefinite detention and replace it with limited 90-day detentions, and (3) an end to maximum-security imprisonment of immigration detainees.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, minister Goodale -- or likely his staff -- issued a press release that appears as a blog on the Huffington Post Canada.

In it, the minister says he has heard the concerns and is working swiftly to remedy the problem -- but he just needs more time. Yet, under his watch as minister of public safety, three people have died in immigration detention in the last five months. This is a tragedy and a political crisis. These three, Francisco Romero Astorga, Melkioro Gahungu and an unidentified man, all ran out of time. And so has the minister.

Not only are the issues urgent, but if minister Goodale's blog is any indication, he is getting incorrect advice from Harper-era staff. As a result he has placed his name on a statement full of misrepresentations and myths. It is essential that the minister meet with detainees immediately in order to witness their conditions. These detainees are his legal responsibility. As they head into their second week of fasting, they do not have much time, either.

The minister is being told that these hearings are transparent and subject to review. They are not.

Minister Goodale -- or likely his staff under advice from the Canada Border Services Agency -- justify the treatment of detainees by saying that immigration detentions only happen when an individual "cannot be identified with certainty, is a flight risk or threatens the safety of Canadians."

The question of identity, flight risk or a threat to Canadian safety is determined at a detention review hearing conducted by a board member of the Immigration Refugee Board (IRB). The minister is being told that these hearings are transparent and subject to review. They are not.

As my research with the End Immigration Detention Network has shown, release rates at detention review in Ontario are nine per cent, while release rates for the rest of the country are 25.5 per cent. IRB board members release rates vary from five per cent to 38 per cent. A detainee's chance of being released or jailed after being deemed a flight risk, security threat or having uncertain identity is based not on their circumstance, but where in the country they are jailed and which board member they appear in front of.

ralph goodale
Ralph Goodale, now minister of public safety, speaks to journalists in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, Ottawa in 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Once detained at a detention review by a board member -- who is neither a lawyer nor a judge -- one cannot have their full case heard in an actual court, ever. The case is almost impossible to bring to an actual judge, and these decisions are happening almost exclusively outside the courts.

Minister Goodale is being told that these detention reviews are independent. But lawyers for the Ministry of Public Safety are the ones contesting release. The minister has the power to instruct them to stop arguing against ending detentions of men who have been jailed for over three months, in some cases for five years, and finally bring Canada's immigration detention system up to modern international human rights standards. This is an easy, zero-cost, immediate fix.

In issuing an opinion against Canada's immigration detention system, the United Nations wrote that "the inability of a State party to carry out the expulsion of an individual does not justify detention beyond the shortest period of time... and under no circumstances indefinite detention." Canada, following best practices internationally, can and should impose a limit. If someone cannot be deported within 90 days, they must be released. This is a first step to ending immigration detention.

Minister Goodale, go to Ontario and meet with the hunger striking detainees immediately. See for yourself how utterly and incredibly inhumane immigration detention is.

With a 90-day limit, the vast number of detentions in maximum security prisons will simply end -- no need to build expensive new facilities that the minister is being told to insist upon. No need for other costly alternatives that continue the legacy of these human rights violations.

The minister must firmly reject the Harper-era idea of "electronic surveillance." Putting ankle bracelets on detainees and having a private company monitor immigration detainees in community is not only expensive, it's a creeping in of U.S.-style private prison policies that have already failed.

The minister is putting his name onto a list of justifications and possible proposals that have been debunked many years ago. When it comes to honouring the human rights and dignity of these immigrant detainees, he is getting bad advice from his staff. And this bad advice continues to prolong the suffering and, at times, cause the death of immigrant detainees.

Minister Goodale, go to Ontario and meet with the hunger striking detainees immediately. See for yourself how utterly and incredibly inhumane immigration detention is. The detainees who are starving not just for themselves -- as your staff keep insisting -- but for reforms within the immigration system. Act now before more people die.

Minister Goodale, do the right thing. You can end the deaths. All you have to do is do it.

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