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Opportunity Lives Here

Canadian immigration detainee released after nearly six years

Somali-born man spent 67 months in an Ontario jail awaiting removal from Canada

Case raises questions about deportation and immigrant detention

ONTARIO, JANUARY 2016 – A Somali national was finally released after 67 months in a high-security prison in Lindsay, Ontario, where he was detained after refusing to sign a consent form to be deported to his country of birth. His case has called into question the current government protocol for removing Somalis from Canada.

Now 52 years old, Abdirahmaan Warssama first arrived in Canada in 1989, seeking asylum from his homeland of Somalia where government forces kidnapped and tortured him, and killed members of his family—others of whom were slain by jihadist militants. Somalia has long been considered a politically unstable place and a ‘failed state,’ following years of governmental disintegration, civil war, and violent extremism. In various statements to Canadian immigration authorities, Warssama has repeatedly expressed fears of conscription by terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida or Al-Shabab, in addition to the risk of being murdered.

“That is why I am here for a long time,” Warssama told the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) after one of his monthly detention reviews. “I cannot go back to Somalia, I will be killed or tortured… My mother gets killed, my sister gets killed, my father gets killed. I do not want to go back,” he stated. “I am not safe there.”

One of nine children whose father died in government captivity, Warssama was himself kidnapped along with his brother Ali.

“The reason for our kidnapping,” as he informed the IRB in a sworn affidavit, “was that the government believed we were supporters of the Somalian National Movement.”

Warssama’s difficulties did not end there. His affidavit attests to the extent of his inhumane treatment at the hands of his country’s government.

“I was transferred to Godka prison in Mogadishu [the nation’s capital] where I was subjected to numerous beatings, interrogations and punishment amounting to torture,” his statement continued. “This included being kept in solitary confinement in a cell which was too small to stand up in, fed little to no food, and being taken to the ocean, placed in an empty rice sack, and submerged until nearly drowned.

“On one of the occasions that I was tortured I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness I was in a state hospital in Mogadishu and was informed by one of the guards that I had been in a coma for approximately two months.”

Eventually Warssama was able to escape the hospital and flee to Kenya, then India, and finally Montreal, where he applied for refugee status—albeit without his mother and one of his sisters.

“My mother was too old and was unable to leave Somalia and so my sister Farhaye stayed behind to take care of her. I have been informed that they were both killed by Al Shabab militants sometime in 2012. Thus my last link to Somalia is gone.”

From failed refugee to criminally inadmissible to Canada

Despite the suffering and risks that Warssama faced in his home country, Canadian immigration authorities denied his 1989 refugee claim. He was nonetheless permitted to remain in Canada on humanitarian grounds, due in part to his diagnosis with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, as reported by the National Post, Warssama was arrested and charged with obstructing a peace officer, threatening death, assault, criminal harassment, and failure to appear in court. Toronto police apprehended him on an immigration warrant, and he was sentenced in 2010. As he had never acquired permanent residency, he was declared criminally inadmissible to Canada and detained at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay. He would remain in jail for five years and seven months, during which time his case received 76 detention reviews.

Finally, last year, a tribunal in Toronto ordered Warssama’s release. At the hearing, the tribunal declared Canada Border Services Agency’s policy on deportations to Somalia “problematic.” IRB adjudicator Karina Henrique cited CBSA’s earlier deportation of six Somali nationals in 2015, with four more scheduled for removal from Canada before the end of the year.

Henrique faulted CBSA for being slow to resolve Warssama’s situation until the Federal Court of Canada intervened in November of 2015 by ordering a reassessment of the case.

“It is not until Justice [Sean] Harrington’s decision came out on Nov. 24 of this year that truly forced the minister to take another—harder—look at their procedure as it relates to Somali removals,” said Henrique.

Overturning a previous ruling to continue detaining Warssama, Justice Harrington urged the government to reconsider the option of deporting him to Somalia, and to explore other alternatives to incarceration.

Stated Harrington in his ruling, “The burden is upon the minister [of public safety] to justify the continued detention. There comes a point in time in which time itself becomes overwhelming, requiring the parties and the [refugee board’s] Immigration Division to think outside the box.”

Voluntary compliance

At the resulting hearing, Henrique further found that the public safety minister “does not currently have any procedure in place that will allow them to remove Mr. Warssama without his voluntary compliance.” Instead, CBSA has depended on methods of pressuring inadmissible Somali nationals to sign official paperwork permitting their own deportation.

Under the Access to Information and Privacy Act, the media has obtained internal CBSA correspondence suggesting that Warssama’s continued detention was a punishment for his refusal to sign, or perhaps even a coercive tactic.

“If the subject does not want to collaborate to obtain a travel document for his removal… well maybe he shall remain [in] detention a bit longer before he is ready to sign,” reads an internal email by CBSA liaison officer Eric Gagnon at the Canadian embassy in Nairobi in 2011.

Although Henrique did not find Warssama’s detention to be unlawful, she stressed the excessive duration of his imprisonment as reason enough for a resolution.

“Mr. Warssama has now been detained for five years and seven months and that, without a doubt, is a long period of time,” Henrique stated when summing up her appraisal of his case. She added that the “factor of future detention favours Mr. Warssama’s release from custody.”

Terms of release

Warssama attended the hearing via video-conference from the Lindsay jail where he has been incarcerated since May 16, 2010. He thanked his adjudicators, assuring them that he “will try to stay as a good man and stay away from problems.”

He has been released on a $6,000 bond posted by his sister Kiine, who has become a Canadian citizen. The strict terms of the bond stipulate that he remain in his sister’s three-bedroom apartment and report to immigration authorities, both on a regular basis and upon occasional request. Kiine Warssama has agreed to supervise her brother.

She previously took responsibility for her brother when she bailed him out of jail following an earlier criminal conviction, and later reported him to the police for breaking one of his release conditions by consuming alcohol. At the time, his physically violent reaction and verbal threats yielded further criminal charges. But his sister has assured the IRB that she does not consider him a danger, and that she will not hesitate to report him again if he violates any terms of his release.

Additionally, CBSA representative Travis O’Brien has stated that the agency “will monitor Mr. Abdirahmaan Warssama to ensure that the terms and conditions are maintained.”

While Henrique conceded that Warssama poses some risk of fleeing the country or refusing to cooperate with the release conditions, she was quick to emphasise that Warssama “is not a danger to the public.”

The real danger, according to some critics of how CBSA handles Somali removals, is faced by rejected Somali refugee claimants and illegal immigrants who are forced to return to their home country. The risks are such that deportees are rarely sent back to Somalia directly—instead flown via a route through Turkey and Kenya, where they are escorted by CBSA guards, before proceeding alone to the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. The government escorts do not partake in the final leg of the journey, as Mogadishu is deemed a danger zone for CBSA officers.

Human rights

Henrique is not alone in critiquing Canadian immigration’s existing procedures. Warssama’s lawyer, Subodh Bharati, also expressed a wish for changes to the system.

“I hope this is the beginning of some semblance of legal oversight into the immigration detention system,” said Bharati, emphasizing that the hearing and the earlier Federal Court ruling have ramifications beyond his client’s case. “Mr. Warssama may be released but there are many who continue to suffer under lengthy incarceration.”

Prolonged detention also causes financial strain. According to the Toronto Star, a total of $57.3 million in taxpayer money contributed toward detaining immigrants in 2014. That year, CBSA held nearly 6,000 men and 1,746 women in custody. Most were detained for an average of 23 days, but 58—including Warssama—remained in detention for at least a year.

In Bharati’s view, “The real fight is about addressing indefinite and arbitrary detention, about charter violations that occur without oversight and accountability, about the way we treat people with mental health issues, and finally about upholding human rights.”

Warssama’s own sentiments upon being released were much simpler.

“Thank you very much,” he said. “Prison is too long.”