Protesters in Laval call on federal government to stop detaining migrants during pandemic

A group of people gathered in front of an immigration detention centre in Laval on Saturday. They say locking up people awaiting immigration decisions is not the answer.

A group of people gathered in front of an immigration detention centre in Laval on Saturday

People gathered in front of the Immigration Holding Centre in Laval on Saturday to call for change. (Alex Leduc/CBC)

A group of activists gathered in front of the Immigration Holding Centre in Laval on Saturday to protest the detention of migrants after several cases of COVID-19 were reported in the facility last month.

Protests were held in Quebec and across the country to mark the one-year anniversary of the first reported case of COVID-19 at a Canadian detention centre.

Immigration detention facilities, like the one in Laval, are federally-operated centres where people are held pending decisions from immigration authorities about deportation and the granting of visas.

At the protest, audio recordings from detainees inside the Laval holding centre were played aloud. They described illness among detainees and staff, including several cases of COVID-19, and unsanitary conditions.

The detainees also said hunger strikes have taken place at the centre several times since the start of the pandemic.

One protester, Johanne Bariteau, said the issue of keeping migrants in detention strikes a chord for her personally.

Bariteau served eight years in prison and said migrants don't deserve to be cut off from society.

"The people inside here have not been convicted of anything, but they're being detained anyway. They're being separated from their families. Sometimes their families are inside with them, without having committed any crime other than wanting to come here."

She said detainees shouldn't be locked up while waiting for decisions about their future in Canada.

Preventative measures being taken, says CBSA

Mark Stuart, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), told CBC in an email that he couldn't comment on specific cases due to privacy, but did confirm that there were three COVID-19 cases at the centre in February.

Stuart said all three cases were considered recovered and isolation protocols were followed for detainees who tested positive. He said this includes infected people taking meals alone in their rooms and frequent cleaning after use of common areas like bathrooms.

He added that the CBSA is actively trying to keep the number of people housed in these centres low during the pandemic.

"Immigration detention has always been a measure of last resort, used only in limited circumstances, and only after [alternatives to detention] are first considered. The CBSA continues to review its detention population to ensure that volumes remain at a minimum and that all options for release are explored for cases where an individual's risk can be managed in the community," wrote Stuart.

"All detainees have their detention reviewed within 48 hours after being in detention, and then within seven days, and every thirty days thereafter, by the Immigration and Refugee Board."

Dr. Arnold Aberman is a member of the Caring for Social Justice Collective. He said he doesn't believe migrants should be held in detention, pandemic or not. (CBC)

Despite these assurances, Dr. Arnold Aberman, a physician and member of the Caring for Social Justice Collective, said he's not convinced.

"There is no way that they can be securely held in a detention centre, in terms of the contacts with the guards, in terms of being in isolation, in terms of the inadequacy of personal protective equipment, there is no way that they can be protected from the outbreak of COVID within the detention centre," he said. 

"The only way to protect them, the only way to protect the guards, is really to release the detainees."

Aberman said COVID-19 only amplifies the conditions in which migrant detainees are living and the problem won't disappear when the pandemic threat is over.

With files from CBC's Alex Leduc