Shelters should be safe sanctuary, activists say

Posted by admin on Mar 8th, 2010

Mon Mar 08 2010, Toronto Star, Nicholas Keung Immigration Reporter

Women’s and refugee rights groups are demanding homeless shelters be declared safe sanctuary from removal enforcement officials, who recently entered a Toronto shelter looking for a Ghanaian woman in hiding. Shelter workers, residents and advocates worry that the February 27 incident at Beatrice House, a downtown shelter for women and children, would scare non-status women in need from seeking help in order to avoid potential arrests and deportation. They will gather Monday morning, on the International Women’s Day, at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre on Phoebe St. to condemn the action by the Canada Border Services Agency.

“We have heard of the CBSA waiting outside of shelters, looking to apprehend women without status. But I have never heard of officers actually walking into a shelter to look for women,” said Eileen Morrow of the Ontario Association for Interval and Transition Houses.

“Shelters are set up to protect these women. It is important that we maintain confidentiality to keep them safe.”

The Ghanaian woman, identified only as Jane, and her three-year-old daughter missed the arrest because they had just moved to another shelter. She was later alerted by friends at Beatrice House.

The incident came to the attention of outreach volunteers with the Shelter Sanctuary Status Campaign, a coalition of grassroots women’s and refugees’ organizations, last week through a support group at another shelter where they met Jane.

“It’s scary. I can’t go to sleep,” said Jane, who works as a day laborer doing cleaning jobs to support herself and her daughter. “I’m scared not just for myself, but for others in shelters everywhere who are facing the same fear.”

Jane said she grew up in a “voodoo” house where she was sexually abused before arriving in Canada in 1999. Her refugee claim was rejected and she was due for removal around 2006, when the single mother decided to go underground by moving into the shelter system.

A Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson refused to comment on the specific case but said, although uncommon, officers are required to seek information from or even access shelters to enforce outstanding immigration warrant.

“The CBSA would only enter shelters in cases where a proactive investigation leads them there,” said Esme Bailey. “In these rare cases, when entry to a shelter becomes necessary, the situation is always approached with sensitivity and discretion. All such entries have, to date, occurred without incident.”

The Shelter Sanctuary Status Campaign was launched two years ago after advocates said they saw a growing number of refugee claims by abused women rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Morrow, whose association represents 60 shelters in the province, said it is up to individual shelters how they respond to immigration enforcement on their properties but her members are advised not to allow enforcement officers in and should seek legal help immediately when confronted.

“Shelters have no obligation to cooperate,” said Morrow. “You should just say to them we can’t provide you with the information who is and who is not in the shelter.”

Every year, 30,000 women and children stay in the province’s 100 women’s shelters for both homeless and abuse victims. But it’s not known how many of the residents are non-status.

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