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In January 1999, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration released an overview of proposed changes to Canada's refugee and immigration policies(1). The following are some comments from a gender perspective.
- The proposals lack a gender analysis, even though federal rules require a gender-based analysis of future laws. Many of the proposals will affect women differently from men. It is important that a careful gender analysis be conducted in a timely way so that the results can be taken into account when final decisions are being made.
- The government should include in its overall directions for reform and the underlying principles articulated in the Act a commitment to gender equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
- The document does not consider the impact of financial barriers, including the $975 Right of Landing Fee. The various fees and costs are discriminatory against women, whose average income is less than men. The Right of Landing Fee should be abolished.
- The proposed 30 day limit on making a claim is a violation of international standards and would be particularly dangerous for women. Women are less likely than men to have access to information and counsel; women may be caught in abusive relationships; women who have survived sexual violence may need time before they are willing to talk about it; women who have escaped persecution in the form of domestic violence risk not learning about their right to make a claim early. For these kinds of reasons, gender-based claims made by women are frequently made more than 30 days after arrival in Canada. Claims should never be rejected on the basis of a timelimit. The timing of the claim should continue to be one factor to be considered along with other relevant information by those making the refugee determination.
- The mandate of the Immigration and Refugee Board is to be expanded to include grounds for non-refoulement other than the refugee definition. It will be important to ensure that the instruments under which the IRB will consider risk of return include instruments relating to gender-specific risks, notably the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
- The proposal to give priority processing to claims from "safe countries of origin" will risk prejudicing women's claims in particular, since often it is women in situations of domestic violence (as well as gay men/lesbians for their sexual orientation) that are persecuted in countries generally considered "safe". There should be no designation of "safe countries of origin".
- The proposed elimination of any possibility of making a second refugee claim will hurt women who never had an opportunity in the first claim to explain their persecution because the spouse was the principal applicant. In the absence of an appeal, the second claim currently offers many women her own chance to claim Canada's protection (and many such claims are successful). An appeal should be introduced to allow errors to be corrected and new information introduced. There should not be a barrier to second claims being made.
- On the identity documents for landing issue, it is proposed that the waiting period be reduced from 5 to 3 years (for Somalis and Afghans only). Women and children are particularly affected, since they are less likely than men to have documents. Women also often feel unsafe while awaiting their permanent residence, and are likely to be reluctant to leave abusive relationships because of the insecurity of their status. Reducing the waiting period to three years is no solution. The identity requirement for landing should be dropped for refugees (who are anyway questioned closely about their identity by the IRB, whenever there is any doubt).
- The government proposes to reinforce its interdiction measures aimed at preventing "improperly documented" travellers from reaching Canada. The more the government interdicts, the harder and more expensive it becomes for refugees fleeing persecution to break through the government's defences to find protection in Canada. Women, especially women with children, are ever less likely to be able to make it through (and they are already significantly in the minority in terms of arrivals). The government should study the impact of its interdiction measures on refugee women trying to seek Canada's protection.
- The proposals include a commitment to shift the balance in resettlement decisions away from "successful establishment" and towards protection concerns. This is positive since potential for "successful establishment" is evaluated using criteria that are unfavourable to women (e.g. education, professional experience and training). However, the "successful establishment" test is to be kept, without addressing the problem of gender bias. The "successful establishment" test should be dropped.
- The proposal to include for resettlement extended family members is good. Single women in particular are often integrated into families, frequently playing a role as care-giver, and may be left dangerously isolated if the family is resettled without them. The proposal needs to be developed in a way that ensures the protection of these women. The proposal should also be expanded to apply to the extended family of refugees recognized in Canada.
- One of the barriers to resettlement faced by women is access to Canadian visa officers (e.g. it may not be safe or easy for women to travel to the visa post). Partnerships with NGOs should present an opportunity to address this problem, at least in part. These partnerships should be given the specific goal of increasing access for women refugees.
- The proposals contain nothing to speed up family reunification for refugees recognized in Canada. The very long delays put women in particular at risk, since they are often left waiting in situations of risk in the home country, or in precarious existences in a third country, often with the responsibility of the children. The government should allow for spouses and children of recognized refugees to travel immediately to Canada to await processing for landing here.
- The proposal to increase the age of dependent children to 22 is positive, and will be particularly important for young women, who in many cultures cannot safely be left behind on their own. However, greater flexibility needs to be introduced so that daughters over 22 do not continue to be put at risk.
- Plans to reduce the length of spousal sponsorship (and sponsorship of children) should be developed. The sponsorship arrangement puts sponsored women in an extremely vulnerable position, since it makes them dependent on their husband, and needs to be curtailed as much as possible.
- The proposal to suspend sponsorship obligations if either the sponsor or sponsored person is convicted of spousal violence is a welcome recognition of the need to address this problem. However, it will be of limited actual help, because convictions are rare and take a long time to achieve. What is needed is a mechanism for ending the sponsorship obligations on the basis of any evidence of spousal violence.