The executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic says it’s time Nova Scotia stopped sending refugee claimants to the largest provincial prison while their paperwork is being processed.

Julie Chamagne says refugees are at risk when placed in the Burnside jail.

“They’re locked up with criminals,” said Chamagne. “They have very little access to interpreters.”

She said they also have limited access to make phone calls to their families overseas.

The issue was also flagged this week by Nova Scotia’s Ombudsman, who cited security and translation issues in his latest report. There are four people in detention on immigration warrants.

Chamagne argues Halifax needs a refugee detention centre like Toronto or Montreal.

“We don’t have an enormous amount of people detained, obviously, but we are a port city,” she said. “We are always going to get people coming in undocumented, making refugee claims.”

Months in prison

Al-Hussein Ahmend Boulkrim was sent to the Burnside jail after arriving from Morocco. As a Christian, he said he faced persecution at home and he decided to come to Canada. He spent seven months in the jail as authorities confirmed his identity.

“It’s very bad there,” Boulkrim said of the jail. While he made some friends, he said others weren’t so welcoming. He said he was beaten up and his nose was broken.

“They [took] me to [the] hospital in Halifax. They said, ‘you need surgery on your eyes.’”

Corrections officials in Nova Scotia say they're working to accommodate refugee claimants.

Sean Kelly, Nova Scotia's head of corrections, said his department has responded to the Ombudsman's concerns with a formal policy of separating detainees from criminals.

But he says sometimes violence is impossible to prevent.

“It is a jail, and sometimes incidents of that nature will happen,” said Kelly. “But again, I think we do a very good job separating immigration detainees from individuals who might post that kind of a threat.”