LAVAL -- Men detained at the Laval immigrant holding centre began a hunger strike this week to protest conditions inside the facility while community advocates claim detainees have contracted COVID-19.

This is the third hunger strike to occur at the centre since the start of the pandemic, according to the organization Solidarity Across Borders (SAB), which works with immigrants and refugees.

Weeks ago, a detainee going by the name Marlon went on a hunger strike on Feb. 14, according to SAB. After a break from the strike last week, he and others declared another fast. 

Detainee Carlos Martin, who began his hunger strike on Monday, said in an interview on Wednesday that six other detainees have also refused to eat.

Martin, originally from Colombia, says he’s been detained in Laval for nearly 16 months, and that he contracted COVID-19 while inside.

He says he and the other strikers are worried about new variants of the coronavirus, claiming that some guards are not properly following sanitary procedures.

“I know the symptoms and have seen guards who had the same symptoms as me and who did not use gloves, who took off their masks,” he said.

In an email Thursday evening, Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said there were currently no detainees on hunger strike. Solidarity Across Borders spokesperson Bill Van Driel said on Friday morning that to his knowledge seven detainees were still participating in the strike.

Back in March 2020, another group of inmates went on a hunger strike, calling for their release amid fears of the then-emerging pandemic.

According to Van Driel, visits to the detention centre have been suspended for almost a year, since being halted on March 16, 2020.

Carlos Martin says the guards are retaliating against the hunger strikers with intrusive searches.

“They refuse to give us water [or] Gatorade in our cells, they come three to four times a day and disorganize everything,” he claimed.

Border Services spokesperson Gadbois-St-Cyr assures detainees participating in “food protests” have access to medical care and are not required to eat. She also says that there are 18 people in the Laval centre, three of which had COVID-19 and who have since recovered.

Asked about the hunger strike on Thursday, Mary-Liz Power, spokesperson for Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said: “We are aware of the situation ... and we are monitoring it.” She also said the number of people in immigration detention centers has been reduced by more than 50% since the start of the pandemic.

-- This report from the Canadian Press was first published on March 5, 2021, with reporting from CTV Digitial Journalist Luca Caruso-Moro.