Community groups demand release of migrant detainees following a COVID-19 outbreak at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre

One of the migrants at the centre has begun a hunger strike to protest inadequate health measures

Multiple migrant detainees at the Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) in Laval have contracted COVID-19, spurring community groups to call on the immediate release of all detainees for the migrants’ safety.

Due to the outbreak, one of the migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 began a hunger strike on Feb. 15 to protest against the conditions at the centre, according to Solidarity Across Borders (SAB), a community group in contact with multiple detainees at the centre.

Unsanitary conditions, inadequate COVID-19 protocol, and refusal to give proper healthcare to detainees — these are some of the allegations weighed against the IHC by SAB and one of the detainees, Marlon, who used a pseudonym to protect his identity.

While the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said detainees who have tested positive are being held in solitary confinement, SAB member of the detention committee Simone Lucas claims all detainees on the men’s side are being held in solitary as a containment measure.

SAB receives all of their information through phone calls with detainees who are in isolation and cannot properly communicate with one another, which Lucas said is the reason why some of their figures are different from the CBSA. In a press release, SAB claimed four positive COVID-19 cases at the centre, while the CBSA claimed three cases since Feb. 15. To date, there are 15 migrants held in the Laval IHC, according to the CBSA.

Back in the spring of 2020, detainees organized a group hunger strike during the first wave of the pandemic, to protest being held in a closed environment, which made them more susceptible to contracting the virus. Some migrants were released following the eight-day hunger strike, and a media campaign by SAB.

“If the CBSA was able to release detainees in the spring we don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to release detainees this time around,” said Tanya Rowell Katzemba, a member of the detention committee at SAB.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the only confirmed COVID-19 case at the centre was a security guard. Rowell Katzemba thinks the situation now, with multiple migrants getting sick, means there is an even greater risk to their safety and wellbeing.

The higher risk of exposure to the virus comes from the staff who work at the centre, who regularly come and go, while migrants are detained in closed environments, according to the press release by SAB. Marlon agrees, and he says the situation at the centre is dire.

“In my experience, the worst thing that has happened to me in my life is to have fallen sick with COVID-19,” said Marlon in an interview with The Concordian. He said the precautions and care he has received at the Laval IHC are insufficient.

Marlon said that after testing positive, he was moved to a smaller room to quarantine, where the walls appeared to have spit spread on them, the bed was dirty, and the curtains were stained with blood. He successfully demanded to be moved, saying the centre’s cleaning measures were inadequate.

According to Marlon, deep cleaning at the centre amounts to surfaces being wiped down with a rag, with high-traffic touchable services like vending machines and water foundations rarely being cleaned. In the washroom detainees use, blood is smeared on the door from the inside, and mold grows on the shower curtains.

Marlon continued to state that multiple guards have taken off their masks while working at the centre, sometimes coughing and sneezing without a face covering. Staff do not socially distance, and instead have various points of contact between each other throughout their work day and during breaks, for example,  Marlon said he witnessed guards sharing cigarette lighters.

Personnel at the centre work in eight hour shifts, with around 12 to 20 employees coming and going from the IHC at a time, said Marlon. In the first week of February, he noticed one of the guards in the shared communal space exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms; they were coughing, had dark bags under their eyes, and appeared to have trouble breathing. 

Less than two weeks later, Marlon also tested positive for COVID-19, during which time he was scheduled to be deported from Canada. Due to his positive result, his deportation was postponed, conditional on a negative test result for COVID-19. In Canada, deportations resumed on Nov. 30, 2020, after having been paused due to the pandemic in March 2020.

The CBSA did not respond to questions regarding whether any personnel at the centre had contracted COVID-19.

The CBSA released a statement pertaining to cleaning measures at the centre.

“Since February 2020, several additional measures have been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Laval IHC. These have been taken in response to directives put forward by health authorities and are reviewed several times a week as the situation continues to evolve.”

One of these measures was also to stop all visitations from the public. Marlon has not seen his wife and son who live in Montreal and whose refugee applications have been approved, since he was detained for lack of identification papers on Nov. 16, 2020.

At the centre, Marlon finds it ironic the guards are “treating them like lepers and keeping their distance,” while it was those very personnel who brought COVID-19 into the detention centre. While some of his symptoms have improved, Marlon said he has many headaches, and can only sleep facing up, for three hours at night.

Marlon has refused to be tested for COVID-19, saying if he tests negative, they will immediately deport him. Instead, he wants to make sure COVID-19 has left no long-lasting health issues, and has asked for a medical evaluation.

Since he became sick at the centre, he feels it is the responsibility of the health workers there to care for him.

“They don’t care how my body is doing or the state of my lungs,” he said. ”They just want me out of the way.”

While Montreal opened their first post-COVID-19 clinic earlier this month, Marlon said detainees at the holding centre are being denied follow-up care. He said he would not refuse deportation, but wants to know he has fully recovered from COVID-19, citing that this is now a human rights demand in the context of the pandemic.

He feels since the shelter cannot treat detainees humanely, it should be closed down. In the meantime, SAB will continue to pressure the government to release detainees at the Laval IHC.

“Treat us like humans,” said Marlon.


Translation for the interview with Marlon provided by SAB member Alonso Gamarra.

Graphic by @the.beta.lab

Previous Article

Major sports leagues' power rankings

Next Article

Nomadland: A solemn tale of poverty in the United States

Related Posts

Global TV under fire

Just when it looked like the dust had settled from the debacle of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ill fated appearance at Concordia, a Global TV documentary about campus tensions and that other infamous September day has managed to stoke the fires of controversy once again.

Profile of the week: Elie Chivi

Elie Chivi is the president of Concordia's International Student Association and has been involved with the association ever since he arrived at Concordia University. "My sister was president when I first got here, so she kind of reeled me in," he explained.

Concordia facing credit crunch

Because of debt taken on to construct its two newest buildings, Concordia now owes almost half a billion dollars in long-term debt, and faces the prospect of hitting a debt-wall inside of five years. According to the university's charter, Concordia is permitted to take on a maximum of $500 million in long-term debt.