Death in CBSA custody sparks calls for accountability

Posted by admin on Jan 30th, 2014

By Kim Pemberton, Vancouver Sun January 30, 2014

Three more groups concerned about the rights of refugees and migrants joined the chorus Thursday demanding more public oversight of Canada Border Services Agency. The groups say the agency has ducked questions about the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican woman who hanged herself Dec. 20 in CBSA holding cells at Vancouver International Airport. She died in hospital eight days later. The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the BC Civil Liberties Association released a joint statement Thursday condemning the silence.

“There has been no public explanation from the CBSA for what happened, whether anything could have been done to prevent the death and what steps are being taken now to determine whether there was any failing on the part of CBSA officials who were responsible for her (Lucia Vega Jimenez) care while she was in custody.

“This tragic case underlines the fact that there is absolutely no independent oversight of CBSA to whom the family can seek recourse,” the statement said.

The immigration detention centre at YVR is shrouded in secrecy and is the only one of its kind in Canada that does not allow lawyers to visit detainees, added two top Vancouver immigration lawyers.

Doug Cannon, who helped found Vancouver’s duty counsel program, to provide legal services to refugees said he was surprised news of Vega Jimenez’s death did not surface publicly until this week.

“The fact that someone was in custody (at the YVR detention centre) and died is something that would have gone around quickly (within legal circles). But not a single lawyer knew.”

Cannon also said he has only seen the centre while on an official tour and is not allowed to speak to clients there.

Similarly, lawyer Phil Rankin said in 15 years he has also only seen the detention centre one time.

YVR detainees who wish to speak to a lawyer are brought to the immigration holding cells downtown at 300 West Georgia at the convenience of the CBSA. If it is a weekend, they must wait until a weekday.

In some cases the are deported without ever having the opportunity to speak to legal counsel, Rankin said.

“There are no visits from family or friends,” Rankin said. “The airport holding cell is considered a transit piont. So CBSA has complete control over who is allowed to enter.

“There’s no oversight by non-officials.”

The Vancouver Sun requested an interview with Canada’s Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, who is responsible for the CBSA, but was told he would not comment.

Earlier his office released this statement: “We have been made aware of the tragic event that took place at the B.C. Immigration Holding Centre. The Minister expects the CBSA to fully cooperate with the Coroners’ Service of British Columbia.”

The CBSA’s media spokesperson for the Pacific region also refused a phone interview and instead requested email questions — only a handful were answered.

Amitha Carnadin stated, in an email to The Sun, that its detention facilities are “regularly monitored by independent organizations, namely the Red Cross and the UNHCR (United High Commission for Refugees.)”

She also said, “Detainees at CBSA’s immigration holding centres or in corrections facilities are provided with access to legal counsel, telephones and visitation.”

In another statement emailed Thursday night around 7 p.m., Carnadin stated that this access is “never denied to detainees, and in person access is routinely permitted.”

But Rankin said he would be surprised if the Red Cross or the UNHCR go into YVR’s holding cells once a year.

Representatives of the Red Cross and UNHCR did not respond to The Vancouver Sun’s requests for comment.

It’s not known if Vega Jimenez had asked to speak to a lawyer when she was brought to YVR on Dec. 19.

Yasmin Trejo, who helped interpret for Vega Jimenez’s sister Marta when she came to Vancouver, said Martha was treated very poorly by the Mexican consulate.

“They didn’t want to help her at all. It wasn’t until Martha made the statement she knew her sister died in the hands of the border police did they agree to help her,” said Trejo.

“It was terrible. Instead of them (the Mexican consulate) letting her grieve her sister, Marta had to listen to them trying to wash their hands of it.”

The Mexican consulate released a statement confirming they paid for Vega Jimenez’s body to be returned to Mexico. But spokesperson Patricia de la Maza said the consulate would not answer any specific questions, such as whether a confidentiality agreement was signed between the consulate and Vega Jimenez’s sister Martha.

In a statement, the Mexican consulate said, “The Government of Mexico deeply regrets the death of Lucia Vega and has expressed its condolences to her family. The Consulate General will be attentive to the results of the inquest by Canadian authorities in this case.”

The three human rights organizations called for the BC Coroners’ Service to hold an inquest into Vega Jimenez’s death.

The coroner has not yet determined whether an inquest will be held.

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