Canada’s welcome to refugee women lacking

Posted by admin on Mar 26th, 2009

Thursday March 26th, 2009, Times and Transcript, Elsie Hambrook

Canada was the first country, 16 years ago, to recognize that women are sometimes persecuted because of their sex — that there are “gender” refugees. Persecution and violence is often “gendered”, whether it is done by public authorities or at the hands of individuals from whose actions the state is unwilling or unable to protect — rape, wife abuse and genital mutilation, for example.

Canada’s Guidelines on Women Refugee Claimants Fearing Gender-Related Persecution and Canadian court decisions on the topic have had some international influence on women’s rights in refugee law.

Canada has also been a world leader in protecting refugees persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation.

That is the part to be proud of about Canada and refugees, along with the facts that April 4 next week is Refugee Rights Day, because on that day in 1985 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right of refugee claimants while they are in Canada.

Refugees who make it to Canada have the rights afforded by the principles of fundamental justice and international law.

But there are problems.

First, the overall number of refugees: there are millions of refugees around the world — the majority are women — and countries who can ill afford to take in refugees, like Tanzania, receive more refugees than Canada and several other developed countries including the United States combined, and Canada donates nine times less money per capita than Norway to international refugee aid agencies. In 2006, New Brunswick welcomed 200 refugees, about as many females as males.

Then there is the fact that few people know the difference between refugees and immigrants. Refugees don’t choose to immigrate. They were forced to leave their homes because of human rights abuses. Refugees end up in Canada either through resettlement (where they are selected overseas to come to Canada) or by making their way here to then claim refugee status.

Once in Canada, refugees can be in limbo as claimants for over a year, sometimes without their family, who may still be in situations of danger and persecution.

And once in Canada, refugees have to sort out our policies. When the Metcalf Foundation recently studied the barriers to getting out of poverty in Canada, one of the examples it gave was based on a refugee case: “We cannot claim to have people-centred government policies. Not when an 18-year-old lone parent refugee is an adult under four policies, a child under two, a student under a one, a dependent adult under two others, a non-resident under two, and a legal resident of Canada under four more. And as far as government is concerned, it is her job to sort all this out.”

Refugee women are a very vulnerable group in Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Nova Scotia, who last year conducted roundtables on refugee women. “Instead of providing sufficient services, we continue to bicker about which level of government should cover which services and at what stage of the refugee process they should be entitled to them,” wrote Christine Saulnier, the centre director.

In the 15 years since Canada’s gender guidelines have been in place, a few thousand gender-related claims have been accepted. One example was in 1999, when a young woman from Mali, who was in Canada to study, was informed by her parents that a marriage had been arranged. It was to be a polygamous marriage and, prior to the marriage, she was to undergo genital mutilation, from which her mother had shielded her as a child.

When she refused to return home, her school funding was cut off.

She made a refugee claim and was recognized without a full hearing. In other cases, women are persecuted as a consequence of the actions of other family members.

Finally, there is concern that women are being disadvantaged by Canada’s refugee process. Groups that work with refugees, such as the Faithful Companions of Jesus Sisters (FCJ) in Toronto, give examples.

Canada’s refugee application requires that the name of a “principal applicant” be given. The family’s entire safety and status in Canada depends on the strength of that principal applicant’s case.

But the use of a principal applicant has no basis — “principal applicant” is not mentioned in the law, nor the idea that one person represents a family’s claim.

Claims should actually be completed on an individual basis.

When women defer to their male partner — the male is almost always the one who is named as the principal applicant — and if his application is unsuccessful, she is barred from making another refugee claim because a person may only make one claim in Canada in their life.

Refugee groups have suggested that only individuals who have been refused as a principal applicant should be ineligible to make another refugee claim, especially since some women may be uncomfortable speaking in front of their partner about experiences of violence at the hands of others, or may be suffering from domestic violence. Women may have a claim for refugee status based on domestic abuse against the spouse with whom they are in Canada.

When the abuse is revealed after the “joined” claim has been determined, she is barred from making another refugee claim.

“It is entirely possible that a woman refugee claimant who has come to Canada with her spouse will never have spoken to any government official or community activist on her own”, says a report by the FCJ Refugee Centre. Those women then have little recourse. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to everyone, not just the “principal applicant.”

* Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Her column on women’s issues appears in the Times & Transcript every Thursday. She may be reached via e-mail at


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