Muhammed Sillah has been locked up for nine months.
The former Mohawk College student has trouble understanding why.
Sillah, an undocumented migrant fighting deportation to his native Gambia, concedes he dropped out of school, worked under the table and stayed here illegally.
But he argues he isn’t facing criminal charges, doesn’t have a record and isn’t a flight risk.
Sillah also says Canadian immigration officials have wrongly accused him of crossing the Canada-United States border when he wasn’t supposed to.
“This is all a new, horrific experience for me,” he told The Spectator during a recent telephone interview from the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont.
Sillah is one of 140 “immigration holds” at the provincial maximum-security facility while government officials try to sort out their cases.
The 29-year-old says he’ll be persecuted if he’s forced to return to the small West African country because of online articles he’s written criticizing its government while in Canada.
“I will definitely be arrested and be sent to jail to be tortured, or indefinitely in prison, or killed.”
In 2006, Sillah travelled to Canada on a student visa to study at Mohawk College in Hamilton, but says he dropped out of the network engineering program when he ran out of money.
He started working under the table detailing cars in Toronto to make ends meet.
Sillah said his undocumented status was revealed to authorities after he was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in October 2011.
Fearful of being deported to Gambia, he filed a refugee claim, which he noted was initially granted but then denied.
Sillah and Sarah Mallette, his 29-year-old common-law spouse, managed to obtain a stay on his June 11, 2013 deportation at federal court.
They’re now awaiting the outcome of a pre-risk removal assessment.
Mallette, who still lives in Burlington, and other supporters have mounted protests against Sillah’s removal.
“We just need to fight it. We know where the trust is. We know we didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
Sillah said some migrants in Lindsay have been detained for a month while others have been incarcerated for several years.
Waiting for documents in home countries, where there can be poor, non-computerized databases, can take a long time, he said.
“It’s not just at all. It’s an abuse of their rights, of course.”
Syed Hussan, an organizer for the End Immigration Detention Network, agrees.
In fact, Canada shouldn’t keep immigration detainees in limbo for more than 90 days, he argued. “Migrants are being held indefinitely on administrative law. It’s completely unjust.”
Immigration law allows Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers to detain people to “to protect the safety, health and security of Canadians and the integrity of our border,” spokesperson Anna Pape wrote in an email to The Spectator.
Pape would not address Sillah’s case specifically but said the reasons for a person’s detention vary. She said higher-risk detainees are held in correctional facilities, such as the one in Lindsay, while the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre is meant for lower-risk prisoners.
Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services says it locates inmates based on available capacity and space.
“It’s better to keep them altogether in the same wing for safety and security reasons,” said ministry spokesperson Andrew Morrison. The province would not discuss Sillah’s case specifically.
Sillah alleges he’s been subject to racist taunts during his detention.
He said a CBSA officer told him his only chance of evading deportation was “black magic” and while detention in Toronto, a guard suggested his food was better than the bugs his mother served him in Africa.
In Lindsey, a guard “basically makes fun of me for being a Muslim and praying,” he said.
Greg Flood, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said the “vast majority” of staff are “dedicated and hardworking, and perform their duties honourably and professionally.”
Pape said CBSA officers are trained in diversity and race relations to ensure “all persons are treated fairly and with respect regardless of their gender, culture, race, religion or sexual orientation.”
Sillah said he didn’t intend to stay in Canada when he arrived, but his online articles about Gambia have made that impossible.
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International flag human rights abuses in the West African country.
On its website, the U.S. State Department notes “government complicity in the abduction of citizens; torture and abuse of detainees and prisoners, including political prisoners.”
Sillah, who calls himself a “freedom fighter,” wants to continue advocating for human rights in Gambia and study political science at university.
But eventually, Sillah added, he and Mallette would like to return to his native land when it’s safe.
“We really want to go back to Gambia and live in Gambia.”