Key refugee and immigration issues for women and girls

There have been many recent changes in immigration and refugee policies in Canada. How might these changes affect women and girls?

Reformed refugee determination system

Significant changes have been made recently to Canada’s refugee determination system, mostly taking effect on 15 December 2012. Key features are:

  • Very short timelines for filing forms and for the refugee hearing – many women will find they don’t have enough time to prepare for the refugee hearing. It takes time and trust to be ready to speak about traumatic experiences, especially sexual violence. Documentation of human rights abuses against women is not always readily available. It is also more difficult to meet short timelines if you are juggling childcare.
  • Barriers to legal representation – more claimants will be left unrepresented in the new system. Negotiating the refugee process without a lawyer is particularly difficult for women who have had limited access to education or relevant professional experience.
  • Designated countries of origin – some countries have been designated “safe” and claimants from these countries have even shorter timelines, no right of appeal and virtually no access to health care. Women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution will be among the worst affected by these discriminatory rules, since women’s rights are routinely violated in many countries that may appear generally “safe”.
  • Implementation of the appeal – more than ten years after Parliament passed a law giving refused refugee claimants a full appeal on the merits, this provision has finally been implemented! Unfortunately, many categories of claimants are denied this right. This means that, in some cases, a woman fleeing gender-based violence or persecution based on her sexual orientation will have her fate determined by a single decision-maker, with no opportunity for a second look to ensure a mistake was not made.
  • One-year bar on Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA) after a refugee claim has been refused – sometimes women’s grounds for fearing persecution are not properly heard when they make a claim together with their husband (who is often considered the “principal applicant”). The same applies to girls arriving with their families. The PRRA used to be an opportunity for women and girls to bring forward new evidence of risks they face, but now they can be deported without access to the PRRA.
  • Bar on refugee claimants making an application on humanitarian grounds (H&C) –in the past many women, including many who had suffered gender violence, were accepted under H&C after being refused in the refugee claim process. The new rules mean that most women will be deported before an H&C application can be reviewed.
  • Mandatory detention for designated “irregular arrivals” – some mothers detained long-term under these new provisions will face the painful choice of keeping their children incarcerated with them in detention or handing them over to a child welfare agency.

Cuts to refugee health care

Cuts made in June 2012 by the federal government to its Interim Federal Health (IFH) Program have left many refugees, refugee claimants and certain other non-citizens without coverage for essential health care services. Some people are without any coverage at all.

  • The cuts leave some pregnant women facing huge bills for prenatal and postnatal care, as well as deep anxiety about giving birth without access to medical care.

Resettlement and refugee family reunification – long delays

In many regions, particularly in Africa, processing is extremely slow for resettlement to Canada or for reunification with family members who are refugees in Canada.

  • Women and girls are forced to wait in precarious situations, where they are vulnerable to sexual assault, due to very long processing times.
  • Mothers in Canada separated from their children overseas experience extreme anguish during the long wait for reunification. Requests for DNA testing prolong the delays and impose a huge financial burden on recently arrived refugee women.

Conditional Permanent Residence

In October 2012, the federal government introduced “conditional” permanent residence for some sponsored spouses and partners for a period of two years. If they don’t remain with their sponsor throughout this period, their permanent residence could be revoked, and they could be deported.

  • Conditional permanent residence exposes women to increased power imbalance in the relationship and heightened risk of domestic violence.
  • There is an exception for sponsored partners in situations of abuse or neglect, but there are multiple barriers to accessing this exception.

Migrant workers in Canada

Canada has in recent years shifted dramatically towards temporary migration. At the end of 2012, there were over 300,000 Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, an increase of 70% over the past five years.

  • Workers in “low-skilled” streams of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, who include many women, are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including trafficking.
  • While the Canadian Experience Class offers a pathway to permanent status for some workers, statistics show that the class is less accessible to women.
  • By requiring workers to live with their employers, the Live-in Caregiver Program leaves women isolated and vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual abuse.


Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in persons, and new barriers to access to status in Canada only increase risks.

  • Despite the many recent changes in legislation, there have been no amendments to assure protection for trafficked women and girls. The existing mechanism of Temporary Residence Permits is not fully effective.

March 2013


There have been many recent changes in immigration and refugee policies in Canada. How might these changes affect women and girls?


Year in Review: Changes in 2012 for refugees and other newcomers to Canada

2012 brought many important and difficult changes for resettled refugees, refugee claimants and other newcomers to Canada. These changes mean that Canada is slipping in its respect for the basic rights of refugee and newcomer families. The mostly negative rhetoric accompanying the changes also makes Canada a less welcoming country.

Changes to refugee protection in Canada

Significant changes to Canada’s refugee determination system were introduced on 15 December 2012. Under the new system:

  • Refugee claimants face very short timelines to present their claims.
  • Claimants from 27 ‘Designated Countries of Origin’, so-called ‘safe’ countries, face even shorter timelines and have no right of appeal.
  • Refused refugee claimants cannot apply for pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) or humanitarian and compassionate consideration for one year.

All refugee claims should be treated fairly and equally, based on merit and independent of political considerations.

In addition, the law now allows the Minister of Public Safety to designate groups of two or more people, based on mode of arrival. Individuals designated face mandatory detention and a 5 year bar on family reunification, among other rights restrictions. Five groups were designated on 4 December.

On the positive side, some refused refugee claimants finally have access to a full appeal on the merits (although many are denied this right) and accepted refugees no longer face a 180-day time limit to apply for permanent residence, which complicated procedures and delayed family reunification for some in the past.  

Refugee resettlement: towards the transformation of refugee sponsorship?

A series of changes combine to suggest that Canadians will have less say over which refugees are resettled to Canada, but will be asked to pay for more. 

Private sponsorship of refugees in Canada must:

  • Be available to refugees everywhere in the world, without discrimination
  • Engage Canadians as true partners through private sponsorship
  • Have the government do its part to resettle refugees, based on need
  • In 2012, Sponsorship Agreement Holders for the first time faced caps on the numbers of refugees they could sponsor. Applications to four visa offices (Nairobi, Cairo, Pretoria and Islamabad) were under especially severe limits.
  • Since October, Groups of Five can only sponsor refugees who have already been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR or a State. Some vulnerable or marginalized refugees will be excluded.
  • More resettlement spaces are being allocated to priorities decided by the Minister, without consultation.
  • Private sponsors are being asked to provide partial support for refugees selected by the government, and for whom the government had previously committed full support (blended sponsorships).



Changes to refugee healthcare

On June 30, 2012, the federal government implemented cuts to its Interim Federal Health Program, which covers basic health care for refugees, refugee claimants and certain other non-citizens.

Everyone who lives in Canada should be entitled to an acceptable level of healthcare. Canadians are at their best when they treat refugees fairly and with respect.

The cuts have led to:

  • Confusion and anxiety for refugee claimants and others affected
  • Confusion for health care providers about patients' entitlements
  • Some people left without any health care coverage, including those waiting for an appointment in order to make a refugee claim
  • Some people left without any means of paying for necessary medications
  • The loss of psychological support services for refugees who are survivors of torture, rape or other organized violence
  • Groups sponsoring refugees now responsible for extra medical expenses, potentially deterring sponsors
  • Extremely divisive rhetoric pitting Canadian citizens against refugees


Precarious status, vulnerability to violence

Canada must return to a policy of permanent immigration to Canada. Special attention must be paid to situations of inequality between spouses and of potential violence and exploitation due to precarious status.

In 2012, the federal government implemented a period of “conditional permanent residence” for some sponsored spouses and partners. Under the new rules, if an affected spouse leaves his or her sponsor within two years of arrival in Canada, he or she could be stripped of permanent resident status and deported. This change increases the risk of conjugal violence.




Shifting from permanent to temporary labour

2012 has seen a series of changes, which reduce migrant workers’ rights:

Canada must return to a permanent immigration policy for all migrant workers, regardless of skill category, to address long-term employment needs. External oversight of employers must be mandatory. All migrant workers should gain access to settlement services.

  • Migrant workers can now legally be paid up to 15% less than their Canadian counterparts, for the same work.
  • Migrant workers applying for permanent residence through the Provincial Nominee Program must satisfy minimum language requirements, posing a significant barrier to many.
  • Migrant workers will be unable to access to Employment Insurance benefits, despite their contributions to the program.

There are increasing concerns that migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and even trafficking. 



Changes to Canadian citizenship applications

Citizenship should be accessible to all permanent residents, including refugees and stateless persons who have no other State to protect them.

Starting 1 November 2012, applicants for Canadian citizenship must provide proof of their English or French skills, at their own expense. Previously, the government assessed applicants’ language competencies.

The CCR is concerned that these new citizenship language requirements will place additional burdens on refugees and other vulnerable newcomers.