Yesterday, on the eighth day of a hunger strike at an immigration detention centre just north of Montreal, the Canada Border Services Agency released several migrants who had been detained at the facility. However, CBSA has confirmed that, as of April 1, 35 migrants remained in detention at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre, where detainees say the Canadian government is taking inadequate measures to protect them from the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 40,000 people around the world since December.

The hunger strike at the Laval immigration jail began on March 24, after Canadian and Quebec authorities failed to respond to a handwritten petition signed by 34 detainees, who asked to be released immediately, saying they are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 in the detention facility.

“We want our health, our security, to be taken seriously,” a young Senegalese detainee participating in the hunger strike explained in French in an audio recording released on Monday.

The petition from detainees at Laval Immigration Holding Centre, handwritten in French.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently warned about the “potentially catastrophic” effects the pandemic could have in immigrant detention centres, jails and prisons, urging governments around the world to work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention. To mitigate the spread of the virus, the British government has liberated hundreds of migrant detainees, and Germany has also closed a migrant detention centre. Earlier this week, in the United States, a federal judge pressed U.S. immigration authorities to release migrants from many detention centres across the country.

“There is no reason Canada cannot do the same,” says Alexandra Pierre, the vice-president of the Ligue des droits et libertés, a Montreal-based human rights group.

At a press conference on Saturday, Pierre and representatives from other rights organizations across Canada, including the BC Civil Liberties Association and the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network, called on the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to immediately release migrants detained at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre and other detention facilities throughout the country.

Nanky Rai, a medical doctor who works at Toronto’s Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, explained that “it is especially difficult to control the spread in detention facilities where 6-foot distancing and proper decontamination of services is virtually impossible.”

“We feel very, very exposed and very much in danger in this detention centre.”

At Saturday’s press conference, she emphasized that the conditions in detention centres — including close confinement, poor nutrition, poor air quality and limited access to high quality healthcare — can also compromise the immune systems of those held in detention, which “can and will increase the risks of complications of COVID-19 infection,” which can ultimately result in death.

“We are aware of the situation in Laval, and we are following it closely,” a spokesperson from the office of the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness stated in an email to Ricochet.

A spokesperson from CBSA also confirmed via email that the agency is aware of “a food protest” at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre. The spokesperson added that since February, “several additional measures have been taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 at the Laval IHC.”

However, the detainees have questioned the adequacy of these measures. While CBSA claims that newly arrived detainees are all tested for the coronavirus, this policy has not always been followed, according to a hunger strike supporter in daily contact with the detainees.

In their March 19 petition, which was sent to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, CBSA president John Ossowski, federal health minister Patty Hajdu and Quebec health minister Danielle McCann, the detainees cited a number of factors that they believe put them at risk. The petition, written in French, specifically cited the confined space in which they were detained, the arrival of detainees who had not undergone testing to determine whether they were carrying the virus, and “the presence of security staff who are in contact with the external world every day and also have not had testing.”

The immediate release of all detainees from the migrant detention centre in Laval is “a public health imperative.”

Since their petition was sent to Canadian and Quebec authorities, little has changed, according to the young Senegalese hunger striker, who uses the pseudonym Abdoul in all public communications because he fears he could face repercussions if he is identified in the media.

Speaking to journalists from the detention centre via a telephone conference call during Saturday’s press conference, he said “we feel very, very exposed and very much in danger in this detention centre,” adding that “we’re doing this strike after multiple attempts to speak to the authorities.”

“We want to be confined, as doctors have recommended, at home, while waiting for the crisis to calm down,” he said.

In the U.S., several detained migrants have already tested positive for the new coronavirus. Although there have so far been no confirmed cases of infection among migrant detainees in Canada, cases have been found in provincially run detention centres. A detainee at the Toronto South Detention Centre recently tested positive for the virus. And last week, the first case of a detainee infected with the coronavirus was reported in Quebec, at a detention centre in Sherbrooke.

In this context, Rai’s assessment is that the immediate release of all detainees from the migrant detention centre in Laval is “a public health imperative.”

Ricochet requested a comment from Justin Trudeau for this article, but the prime minister’s office did not respond.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that 20 migrants remain in detention at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre. According to data that Canada Border Services Agency released to Ricochet after the article was published, the actual number of detainees at the Laval migrant detention center was 35 as of April 1, 2020.
Update: The CBSA released Abdoul, the Senegalese detainee cited in this article, on April 1st, along with another hunger striker. The last remaining hunger striker was released on April 2nd.