Metro Morning

Ontario health workers demand end to 'inhumane' immigration detention process

A group of doctors, nurses and health care providers are uniting behind an open letter that is urging the province to stop accepting immigration detainees in Ontario's prisons.

Group pens letter to minister slamming province over 'worrisome practice'

A group of concerned doctors, nurses and health-care providers say placing immigration detainees in isolation may cause a suicide rather than prevent it. (Shutterstock)

A group of doctors, nurses and health-care providers have signed an open letter urging the province to stop allowing immigration detainees with health concerns to end up in Ontario prisons.

The letter, signed by more than 140 medical professionals, was mailed Tuesday to Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi. Concerns have been raised after two men detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) died in separate incidents this spring in Ontario and a 24-year-old man died while being held at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

The group behind the letter is calling on Queen's Park to end what they call a "worrisome practice," claiming the transfers of vulnerable people with health issues to provincial prisons is "adversely impacting the health of a very vulnerable population in our province."

Dr. Ritika Goel, a Toronto family physician who signed the letter, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that provincial prisons are not a place to hold immigration detainees.  

"We have a situation where we're detaining children and families," she said. "We're detaining people with severe mental illness and this is an incredibly vulnerable population, many of whom have anxiety, depression and PTSD."

The letter called the practice "profoundly inhumane" and inconsistent with the values of those who live in the province.

"We are alarmed that Ontario would agree to confine any person in a provincial prison who is not serving a criminal sentence," the letter said. "Ontario should not be accepting transfers to its prisons of persons detained by CBSA who require medical or mental health intervention."

The group said these transfers should not be made between federal and provincial institutions, but do so under an agreement signed by Naqvi on Oct. 1, 2014. For the concerned medical professionals, provincial prisons are simply not health-care facilities. 

Toronto family physician Dr. Ritika Goel says placing immigration detainees in solitary confinement can have a negative impact on their mental health. (CBC)

No notices given for transfers

The letter detailed the many harms those in custody can be exposed to while detained, from illnesses such as tuberculosis, HIV and Hepatitis C to the possibility of being assaulted or injured. 

"Refugee claimants and other migrants are especially vulnerable to the toxic stress of incarceration, as many have already experienced prolonged and repeated trauma, including torture, in their countries of origin," the letter stated.

A lawyer previously told CBC News immigration detainees have less rights than criminal inmates because they are denied adequate notices, written reasons, disclosure of the facts of their cases, the right to call a lawyer, a cooling off period and their lawyers are not informed of the transfer until they call the holding centres.

On Monday, a CBSA spokesman confirmed immigration detainees are not provided with written reasons for transfers.

"Detained individuals can speak to a CBSA officer about any aspect of their detention," said CBSA spokesman Travis O'Brien. "The officer is available by phone for any facility and also conducts regular site visits."

A Canada Border Services Agency spokesman says immigration detainees are not provided with written reasons for transfers, but are permitted to speak to officers. (CBSA)

In the letter, the group also mentioned how these placements have a "profound and debilitating impact" on those dealing with suicidal thoughts because they are sometimes placed in complete isolation or solitary confinement.

"Solitary confinement is known to negatively impact people's mental health," Goel said.

"These placements may indeed cause a suicide rather than prevent it," the letter stated.

The group said they want to see the agreement between the province and the federal governments terminated to ensure immigration detainees no longer find themselves in Ontario prisons. Even during a transition period, health-care professionals are seeking an immediate halt to transfers involving people with serious medical issues, including mental illness. 

On Sunday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office released a statement saying they are concerned with the recent deaths in government custody and said the federal government is reviewing the detention program.

CBC News reached out to members of Naqvi's office for comment on the matter, but have not heard back. 

The End Immigration Detention Network said 15 people have died in immigration detention while in CBSA custody across Canada since 2000.

A letter urging Ontario to stop accepting immigration detainees in prisons was sent to Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi on Tuesday. (CBC)

With files from Muriel Draaisma