Canadian NGO report on women and children migrants





February 2000



This report has been developed by the Canadian Council for Refugees in preparation for the Seminar on Migrant Women and Children, to be held in El Salvador in February 2000, as part of the activities of the Regional Conference on Migration ("Puebla Process"). Women and children are two specific categories of people who are particularly vulnerable during the migration process, and whose experiences of migration may be different from, and less readily known, than those of males and adults. The seminar offers an opportunity to explore those experiences and develop recommendations to strengthen the situation of women and children migrants.


The report is based on the following inputs:

  • Surveys on migrant women and migrant children, completed by over 25 organizations from across the country, representing the opinions of migrants and service providers.

  • Consultations held at the Canadian Council for Refugees in December 1999 (one on women; one on children and youth). Over 50 people participated in each of these sessions, representing organizations from across the country.

  • A report based on interviews with service-providers in Montreal on compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in relation to immigrant and refugee children.

  • Past work by the Canadian Council for Refugees on issues of women and children.



"Migrant" is not a term that is commonly used in the Canadian context. We have taken it to mean immigrants and refugees who have arrived as permanent residents and persons living in Canada without permanent status, whether they be refugee claimants, Convention Refugees awaiting permanent residence, refused refugee claimants, live-in caregivers, or others without status.

Throughout the consultation, the CCR has distinguished the categories of migrant women and migrant children/youth. While both groups have specific vulnerabilities, they are not the same and treating the two together risks obscuring their particularities (as well as reinforcing the historical tendency to infantilize women).


In the course of the consultations, participants identified many barriers faced by migrant women and children. Some also noted that over the years there has been considerable work done in Canada on identifying these barriers and that it is important to move beyond reviewing again and again the problems and move towards solutions.


The following are some of the key responses given by those completing the surveys and participating in the consultation sessions, on 1) migrant women, and 2) migrant children and youth.


QUESTION ONE: What are the main barriers faced by migrant women in Canada?

  • •Language
  • •Employment (lack of Canadian experience)
  • •Cultural (adjustment, different cultures, lack of information of different cultures)
  • •Isolation (lack of family network)
  • •Lack of access to services (no childcare, lack of cultural sensitivity on health issues)
  • •Lack of information about women's rights
  • •Legal problems (no status, uncertainty for refugee claimants)
  • •Discrimination
  • •Food
  • •Weather

QUESTION TWO: What are the things that most help/have helped women to overcome these barriers when they arrive and in the first few years?

  • •Education, English/French second language classes
  • •Training on Job Skills
  • •Information and Orientation on Canadian life and culture.
  • •Ethno-specific community
  • •Services, information on women's rights
  • •Ethno-specific women's groups.

QUESTION THREE: Which women would you say are most vulnerable?

  • •Single mothers
  • •Seniors
  • •Those aged between 25 and 45 years
  • •Educated women (because of difficulty adjusting to the new life)
  • •Undocumented women
  • •Abused women, survivors of violence, trauma and torture

QUESTION FOUR: What supports would be useful for women in overcoming the barriers?

  • •Training
  • •Support groups
  • •Recognition of their profession, access to trades and professions
  • •More information sessions


QUESTION ONE: What are the main barriers faced by migrant children and youth in Canada?

  • •Isolation (social, family separation, at school, different school)
  • •Language
  • •Lack of services for children
  • •Different school system and with lack of cultural sensitivity
  • •Being between two different cultures (Canadian and family culture)
  • •Slow family reunification
  • •Lack of status in Canada esp. with regard to higher education
  • •Multiple legal jurisdictions and lack of enforcement of rights - contrasted with increased harmonization between different levels of government when it comes to negative enforcement, i.e. deportation
  • •Lack of reliable childcare

QUESTION TWO: What are the things that most help/have helped children and youth to overcome these barriers when they arrive and in the first few years?

  • •English/French second language classes for children and youth
  • •Transitional programs (reception classes)
  • •Youth peer support programs
  • •Accessible children and youth recreational programs

QUESTION THREE: Which children/youth would you say are most vulnerable?

  • •Teenagers
  • •Children refugee claimants
  • •Children from a single parent
  • •Children who experience any trauma (war, abuse, child soldiers)

QUESTION FOUR: What supports would be useful for children and youth in overcoming the barriers?

  • •Supports groups (at school, after school program, recreational, parenting)
  • •Youth clubs



POLICY -- Canadian immigration policy continues in a number of areas to have a discriminatory impact on women, because it reinforces a patriarchal model or where women suffer a particularly negative impact because of their situation.

Family class sponsorship perpetuates relationships of dependence of women on their husbands. A woman sponsored for immigration purposes by her husband is formally required to be looked after by the husband for a period of ten years in most of Canada (three years in Québec). This means, among other things, that the woman is not normally eligible for social assistance. The patriarchal nature of the relationship is damaging for women and in particular aggravates situations of conjugal violence. Women in the process of being sponsored remain in abusive relationships because of the threat of the sponsorship being withdrawn and their deportation following. Even after they are already permanent residents, women are sometimes told by their spouses (wrongly) that as sponsors they can have their wives deported if they choose. Even where they are aware of their rights, leaving an abusive relationship can be especially difficult for sponsored women because of the barriers they face in getting access to social assistance. In cases where it is the woman who sponsors her husband, there are also problems where the woman is abused by her partner, since she continues to be responsible for her abusive husband.

Women particularly at risk under spousal sponsorship are those who meet their husband-to-be through a mail-order bride business. Such women may be sponsored as fiancées, in which case they have 90 days to get married or they become deportable. This places women in a very vulnerable situation, because of their total dependence on the men that sponsored them.

The government has proposed legislative amendments to suspend sponsorship obligations if either the sponsor or sponsored person is convicted of spousal violence. While this is a step in the right direction, it would be of limited 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.

The live in caregivers program allows domestic workers to enter Canada on a temporary basis on condition that they live in their employers' home. They are allowed to apply for permanent residence after two years. This program, like spousal sponsorship, puts women at risk of exploitation and/or physical and psychological abuse, since they know that if they flee their employer they may face deportation.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada continues to use the concept of "head of family" or "head of household", for example recently in relation to the Kosovar refugees in the evacuation program. This reinforces patriarchal distributions of power within families.

Many gender neutral policies have a particularly adverse impact on women. Refugees selected overseas for resettlement in Canada must satisfy an immigration officer that they would be able to "successfully establish"in Canada. Factors officials are directed to take into account discriminate against women: level of education, professional qualifications, work experience, and knowledge of French or English. Single women with children are also at a disadvantage under this test. Among refugees resettled to Canada, males consistently outnumber females.(In 1999, 47% of those resettled were female).

Since 1993 Canada has required Convention refugees recognized as such by the Immigration and Refugee Board to provide satisfactory identity documents before they can become permanent residents (and thereby to acquire significant rights in Canada). This requirement has a particularly negative impact on women, children and youth, since they often have fewer documents than men.

Family reunification for refugees in particular (and others too) is painfully slow, often taking more than a year. It is frequently the husband who has sought refuge in Canada, while the wife and children are left behind, sometimes in the country of origin where they may themselves be at risk of persecution, sometimes in a country of asylum where their situation may be precarious. In addition to dangers of persecution, such women often face economic and social difficulties, as they try to care for their family alone, perhaps suspecting that their husband has abandoned them because the wait is so long.

The Canadian definition of family sets nineteen as the age limit for dependent children. This is particularly problematic for young women who in many cultures and in many situations are expected to -- and for their own protection must -- remain with their families until they marry. For refugee families who have been forced to flee, rather than choosing to migrate, and who come from a situation of violence, being unable to bring their young adult daughters is a very serious problem.

Over the last decade, fees charged by Citizenship and Immigration Canada to refugees and immigrants have increased astronomically. Most applicants for permanent residence (including Convention Refugees in Canada) must pay $500 per adult and $100 per child in processing fees. All adults becoming permanent residents must pay a Right of Landing Fee of $975 per person. There are also other charges for various immigration services and for becoming a citizen. These fees place a particular burden on women, especially single mothers, given their more limited financial means. Refugee women in Canada frequently start out their lives here with a very significant debt to the government of Canada.

Canada, like many countries, has an active interdiction program, intended to prevent the arrival of improperly documented travelers. This program creates a barrier for refugees seeking asylum from persecution, often forcing them to make use of people smugglers to escape from their countries. Women are less likely than men to have the financial means to pay the smugglers the kinds of fees they ask and may therefore have no possibility at all for fleeing persecution. If they do turn to people smugglers, women are also extremely vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence.

ENFORCEMENT -- Although the harsher forms of enforcement are often directed at men rather than women, the latter may be particularly vulnerable and need special consideration.

Women in detention are not always protected from violence (a young woman detained in a jail was recently physically assaulted by prisoners with the women immigration detainees were commingled). While women are generally separated from male detainees, the facilities given them are sometimes inferior to that given the men, and they may be denied some of the services and access (e.g. to NGOs) that the male detainees enjoy. Women detainees in immigration detention centres are sometimes uncomfortable with male guards. Women with children may have to choose between having their children in detention with them, or being separated from their children.

Women who face deportation alone, especially to countries at war, are often placed in a situation of great vulnerability, but there are no special measures to ensure their security on arrival. Deportations can also cause the separation of families, leaving women alone with the children.

Enforcement measures in other countries can also perpetuate family separation. A recent problem that has emerged is the detention in the US of Canada-bound refugee claimants, some of whom have family members in Canada. The governments of Canada and the US have no mechanism in place to ensure that families separated in this way can be reunited in a timely manner.

ACCESS TO SERVICES -- Although women have access to many services in Canada, including specialized services for women, there remain some barriers. Women with children may not be able to benefit from language classes where childcare is not available. Women who do not speak English or French may have difficulty getting access to services, and may be discouraged from doing so by their husbands who prefer to act as an intermediary. Similarly migrant women are often ill-informed about their rights in Canadian society.

Canada ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. In so doing, Canada committed itself to make the "best interests of the child" a primary consideration in all actions concerning children (Article 3) and to respect the rights in the Convention for each child within its jurisdiction "irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, birth or other status" (Article 2).

Health (Article 24) -- all migrant children do not have equal access to health services. Children who are refugee claimants are covered by the Interim Federal Health Program, which offers only limited coverage, meaning that some health services recommended by medical staff will not be accessible to these children, while Canadian children will have access. Furthermore, even in cases were services are in theory covered, some medical institutions are reluctant to treat children with this medical coverage because they find it administratively complicated. There may also be questions about whether a service is or is not covered by the program and institutions delay giving services until they have clarified the question (potentially putting the child at risk). Psychological services are not covered, causing for refugee children, particularly those who may have experienced traumatic experiences in their country of origin or in flight.

In some cases, children who are born in Canada and are therefore Canadian citizens are denied access to full provincial health coverage on the basis of the status of their parents. These children are offered only the Interim Federal Health Program. This problem has occurred in British Columbia, Ontario and Québec (although since December 1998 Québec has offered these children health coverage).

In some cases because of delays in processing and access to the Interim Federal Health Program, children may be without any medical coverage at all. This is the case with families who make a refugee claim and are forced to wait a long period before receiving an eligibility decision, or if the eligibility decision is negative.

Education (Article 28) -- some migrant children have difficult access to education. Some school boards hesitate to allow children to register in school unless they have permanent status or permission from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This situation affects refugee claimants awaiting or refused eligibility or children of people who are living undocumented in Canada. Often such children can eventually be admitted to school but only after the intervention of non-governmental organizations. In some cases, because of their lack of status, parents are asked to pay very substantial fees for their children's education.

A group of minors detained while they pursued their refugee claim were recently denied access to any education for a period of five months.

There are concerns that in some schools prejudices among the staff towards immigrants and/or members of ethnic minorities may compromise migrant children's access to education. As an example, a Moslem women was called in by the school to discuss her child's problems but the teachers refused to speak to her because she was veiled.

Social services (Article 26) -- many migrant children have been affected by the numerous reductions in social service coverage that have characterized the last few years. NGOs report that a growing number of newcomer families live in poverty. In some parts of Canada, cuts have disproportionately affected newcomers, disqualifying them from certain benefits. In some cases, notably while awaiting an eligibility determination on a refugee claim, families are not given any social assistance.

Children who have been sponsored under a family sponsorship may be at particular risk of poverty since they and their family may be ineligible for social assistance on the basis of the 10-year sponsorship agreement.

Mainstream social services are often ill-equipped to deal with newcomers, in terms of language, cultural sensitivity and relevant knowledge. Often children are called in to interpret for their parents, putting a significant burden on them.

Family reunification (Articles 9 & 10) -- many children face long delays in reunification with their parents.

The law does not provide for family reunification for many children. Where persons do not have permanent status there is no provision for family reunification. Even if an unaccompanied minor has permanent residence, the law does not provide a mechanism for allowing the parents' admission to Canada (either for visits or for permanent family reunification).

In cases where there are legal possibilities for family reunification (e.g. a child and one parent in Canada and a second parent overseas), processing times are frequently extremely lengthy and a number of barriers may block family reunification. The fees that need to be paid are considerable and sometimes beyond the means of the applicants ($500 per adult and $100 per child in processing fees, as well as $975 per adult in Right of Landing Fees). Another barrier lies in the demands made to establish family relationship. This is a particular problem for people from parts of the world where identity documents are not available or little used. More and more frequently Citizenship and Immigration Canada has been requiring DNA tests, at significant expense and causing delays.

For some Convention Refugees, reunification of parents and children is significantly delayed or even permanently denied, because they refugees are unable to acquire permanent residence, on the basis either of lack of satisfactory identity documents or security checks.

A problem that has recently emerged is the separation of families as a result of fathers, of mothers, or of children being intercepted and detained in the US on their way to join their family member(s) in Canada, either in the refugee claim process or already recognized as Convention Refugees. Often those detained in the US have no option but to claim asylum in the US, keeping family members separated. Moreover it is inefficient inefficient for two countries to determine what is usually the same claim to refugee status.

Refugee protection (Article 22) -- refugee children, especially unaccompanied minors, need special attention and protection in the refugee determination system. The appropriate sensitivity is not always shown by members of the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing the cases.

Recently there have been an increasing number of unaccompanied minor refugee claimants who have been kept in detention, including in the case of one group in an adult facility. Detention has lasted in one case over 5 months.

There is considerable concern over the deportation of unaccompanied minors, often refused refugee claimants, to either the United States or their country of origin, without any efforts to ensure that they are returning to a situation where they will be safe and their basic needs met and to the care of someone who will take responsibility for their best interests.



  • that Canada sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
  • that Canada incorporate into the Immigration Act the Convention on the Rights of the Child, directing in particular that all immigration decisions taken concerning children make their interests a primary consideration.
  • that immigration officials be given training on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its implications in their work.
  • that provincial and federal governments take the position that education is a right of all minors, irrespective of immigration status, and take measures to ensure that this right is enjoyed by all children on their territory.
  • that the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) be incorporated into domestic law, as well as the optional protocol which would provide women in Canada with an international complaint mechanism with regard to gender issues.
  • that Citizenship and Immigration Canada cease to use the designation "head of household" which reinforces patriarchy.
  • that if as CIC acknowledges, there is a great need for caregivers in Canada, that this need be incorporated into the Points system rather than create and effective regime of indentured labour through the live-in caregiver program.
  • that Citizenship and Immigration Canada establish a gender analysis coordinator and ensure that all policies being developed are subjected to a gender analysis, in consultation with NGOs.
  • that refugees selected for resettlement not be required to meet the "successful establishment" criterion, which discriminates against women and especially single mothers with several children.
  • that the government commit itself to gender proportionality in the refugee resettlement program.
  • that the visa posts be monitored with respect to their implementation of the guidelines on gender-related persecution.
  • that the provision in the Immigration Act requiring Convention Refugees in Canada to produce satisfactory identity documents for landing be repealed (it affects disproportionately women and children/youth).
  • that the Immigration Act be amended to allow the spouse and children of Convention Refugees in Canada immediate entry to Canada so that the family can complete processing of permanent residence while united.
  • that the governments of Canada and the US collaborate to enable the family reunification of members of a refugee family when one or more members of the family is intercepted in one country and other members of the family are already recognized as Convention Refugees or are in refugee procedures in the other country.



  • that CIC and other provincial and federal departments harmonize practices so that migrant workers are informed of rights and remedies.
  • that employers, not just migrants, bear the consequences of violation of immigration and labour laws.
  • that Citizenship and Immigration Canada make obligations very clear to the employers in the live-in caregivers program.
  • that measures be taken to avoid splitting up families in the case of immigration detention.
  • that all immigration officers receive training on cultural and gender sensitivity.


  • that more support groups be available to address needs of newcomers generally, and youth in particular, since these are a form of self help where isolation and lack of information can be overcome.
  • that ESL education and childcare be harmonized so that women with children can benefit
  • that parents have wider access to education beyond English/French as a Second Language, especially for mothers as this seems to improve outlook for children as well.
  • that higher priority be given to sensitizing governments to the particular needs of women and children migrants.
  • that more "befriending" programmes be established by community groups/government.
  • that more adequate funding be sought for settlement services.
  • that more holistic services be provided by community agencies.



  • that more public education be done to combat myths and stereotypes about migrants in Canada and throughout the world.
  • that Citizenship and Immigration Canada take greater responsibility for ensuring people admitted to Canada have access to minimum standards of treatment, at the very least by ensuring that they have the information to pursue their own legal remedies.
  • Resettled refugees and others who are given permanent residence should get a package of information to help settlement proceed more smoothly.
  • For immigrants and government/private sponsored refugees there should be an orientation given one year after arrival as well as upon arrival.