07/21/2016 04:32 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 04:59 EDT

Ralph Goodale Shows No Signs Of Meeting Immigration Detainees On Hunger Strike

"People are starving themselves for a simple demand of a meeting."

TORONTO — Dozens of immigration detainees have entered a dangerous phase of their protest hunger strike, but there was little sign Thursday that the federal government would meet their demands.

Among those demands are an immediate meeting with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and a 90-day limit on such detentions.

"Sometimes, it feels like we're being kidnapped and held against our own wills," Richard Chinedu Abuwa said over the phone from the Central East Correctional Centre, where he has been for more than two years. "Some of us sit here for months, years, and years upon end not knowing what our futures hold for us, and it just really sucks."

Abuwa was one of more than 50 detainees at facilities in Ontario who began refusing food — and in some cases liquids as well — 11 days ago.

Ralph Goodale speaks with the media in the House of Commons, June 15. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Michelle Fraser, one of 65 health-care professionals who wrote to Goodale last week urging he meet the detainees and end indefinite detentions, warned the hunger strikers could soon start suffering serious, potentially lethal health effects.

"It is shameful that 50 immigration detainees must resort to a hunger strike to capture the attention of the Canadian government," Fraser said. "This hunger strike is a sign of the desperation."

Since 2000, at least 15 people have died in Canadian immigration detention — three since the Liberal government came to office. The deaths should be more than enough of a spur to action, activists said.

"Canada continues to be a rogue nation," said Matt Scott, an immigration consultant. "People are starving themselves for a simple demand of a meeting."

A spokesman for Goodale said Thursday the minister has a plan that will "align" with the United Nation's global strategy on the detention issue. The plan, Scott Bardsley said, would be released "in the near future."

"Canada continues to be a rogue nation. People are starving themselves for a simple demand of a meeting."

Bardsley also said detention was "always a last resort" and only allowed when someone's identity is uncertain or a person poses a flight risk or danger to the public.

Tracey Mann, of the End Immigration Detention Network, said the government is overblowing the dangers the detainees pose. Many have simply overstayed visas or are caught up in a backlog of paperwork, she said.

"There needs to be evidence of risk," Mann said. "What is this legal loophole or murky mess where innocent people are being detained?"

Mann said meeting detainees would allow Goodale to see first hand what their experience is like.

"What is this legal loophole or murky mess where innocent people are being detained?"

Abuwa, 39, of Sudbury, Ont., who came to Canada as an eight-year-old in 1985, said he has stopped his hunger strike because he's due to be deported on Monday to Nigeria, a country he barely knows and whose language he doesn't speak.

The permanent resident was denied citizenship and rendered inadmissible to Canada after convictions for crimes such as drug trafficking and assault. His deportation has been held up until now because of problems on the Nigerian end _ including no one to receive him and a lack of a travel document, he said.

Ontario premier asked to step in

Activists also called on Premier Kathleen Wynne to intercede with Goodale given that the federal government is using Ontario prisons to house the detainees.

In response, Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti said medical staff were actively monitoring the inmates for any health concerns but noted it's the federal government which decides who is in custody.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the federal government to find long-term, sustainable solutions for detainees placed in our institutions," Orazietti said in a statement.

Provincial New Democrat critic Jennifer French called the situation "unconscionable" and urged Goodale to meet the detainees and international standards on detentions. The province, she said, should consider refusing to allow its facilities to be used in this way.

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