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How a One-Day Jail Sentence Became Seven Years of Detention

Michael Mvogo is one of many people to have been detained in Canada for months or years with unresolved immigration issues.

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In September of 2006, a homeless immigrant known to authorities as Andrea Jerome Walker was arrested by Toronto police and sentenced to jail for possessing about a gram of crack cocaine. He served his time, but was arrested again the following day by the Canadian Border Services Agency. More than seven years later, that same man, whom authorities have now identified as Michael Mvogo, is still in prison. Although Mvogo was not charged with any new offences, he remains incarcerated in a Lindsay, Ontario provincial jail with no evident path to either freedom in Canada or deportation to his native country, Cameroon.

Mvogo is one of hundreds of immigrants who are currently being held in prisons and detention centres across Canada while their cases remain unresolved. Wednesday morning, Mvogo’s lawyer, Macdonald Scott (pictured above), filed a petition to the United Nations high commissioner on human rights, demanding an end to Mvogo’s indefinite detention.

Scott told reporters gathered outside a federal court on Queen Street that Canada is violating federal and international law by detaining immigrants indefinitely. “The lack of a presumptive period…is not in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and not in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Rights,” Scott said. He’s asking the government to set a 90-day limit on holding immigrants while their status is being processed.

Canada has signed and ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both international agreements set limits for holding people in detention, and provide protections for immigrants whose nationality and citizenship are in question.

Since his initial arrest in 2006, Mvogo has frustrated police and immigration officials by using fake names and claiming at different times to be from the United States and Haiti. Scott said Mvogo’s behaviour is no excuse for his lengthy detention. “He’s been held for removal [from Canada]; he’s not being held for criminal charges or criminal convictions,” said Scott. “It has been far too long.” Mvogo’s situation is further complicated by the fact that the government of Cameroon refuses to accept his travel documents. “Cameroon refuses to issue documents even in cases where an individual’s identity has been verified,” Scott said.

Syed Hussan, of the advocacy group No One Is Illegal, said that while Mvogo’s individual case is bizarre, the practice of indefinitely detaining immigrants is becoming more common in Canada. “Indefinite detention is at huge cost to taxpayers, it is at huge cost to families and individuals.” The federal immigrant and refugee board has the legal ability to recommend limits on detention, but frequently doesn’t.

Torontoist asked the office of Steven Blaney, the federal minister of public safety, to comment on Mr. Mvogo’s situation, and on the broader issue of lengthy detentions of immigrants in Canada. There was no immediate response.

The Toronto Star reported last month that nearly 200 detainees at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay have staged hunger strikes to protest their detentions. Most of the detainees were recently transferred from a minimum security facility in North Toronto. Scott said government officials don’t have clear criteria for determining which migrants can stay in minimum-security holding facilities, and which should be sent to provincial jails.

Scott said he expects Mvogo’s appeal to the United Nations to take two or three weeks, but that any decision is not binding on the Canadian government. “It’s an opinion. Canada has the choice to decide whether they continue to break international law, or comply with the law,” Scott said.

Photos by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.

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