Paola Ortiz was Deported Yesterday

Refugee Women Fleeing Gender Persecution

by Rosa Elena Arteaga and Angela Marie MacDougall

Around the world at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, often by an intimate male partner, boyfriend, husband, partner or family member. Domestic violence refers to acts of violence perpetrated against girls and women within the domestic sphere.  Such violence can take many forms, such as wife battering, marital rape or incest. The vast majority of such abuse is perpetrated by men against their female partners.    Women seek safety in many thoughtful and creative ways both inside and outside of the relationship.  In the pursuit of safety some women determine that in order to be safe from intimate partner violence they will have to leave their homelands and travel to live in other regions.  Women leave rural settings and go to a city, leave an urban setting to go to a rural community.  Leave one province or territory to another province or territory.  Women will also take the effort to cross international borders to establish  what they hope will be a safer life in a new country.  Seeking safety in a new country usually means asking permission through a government department responsible for immigration and in Canada that entity is Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Refugee Women Fleeing Gender Persecution

At Battered Women’s Support Services in the past three years we have been working with, on average, two new intakes a month where women who were in Canada as refugees who had left their homelands seeking safety from a husband or boyfriend.  Canada offers Refugee  protection to people who fear persecution and are unable to return to their home country and eligibility is determined by Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IBR).  The IRB is an independent administrative tribunal that makes decisions on immigration and refugee matters.  The IRB decides who is a “Convention” refugee or a person in need of protection.

In May 2001, the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) held an international conference on the topic of “Refugee Women Fleeing Gender-Based Persecution” with the goal of promoting recognition of gender-related persecution as a basis for refugee protection.  According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who is outside his or her country, who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group (lesbian, gay, transgendered persons, women) or political opinion, and whom the state is unwilling or unable to protect.  The definition does not mention gender and has traditionally tended to be interpreted in a way that does not take account of women’s experiences of persecution.

The CCR notes, that “it is increasingly being recognized that the forms of persecution experienced by women are often different from those experienced by men, and that women are persecuted because of their gender. The evidence that women may be able to bring forward to support their refugee claim may also be different – and more difficult to provide – than that available to men. These gender differences would have to be fully taken into account if women’s human rights are to be respected.  In 1993 Canada became the first country to issue guidelines on refugee women claimants fleeing gender-related persecution.  Since then, the recognition of gender-based violence has become relatively well established in Canada’s refugee determination system and other countries (notably U.S. and Australia) have adopted their own guidelines, or have changed legislation to recognize gender-based persecution (e.g. Sweden) or have advanced the issue through jurisprudence.”

Here are the IRB guidelines for Refugee Women Claimants Claiming Gender-Related Persecution:

Generally speaking, women refugee claimants may be put into four broad categories, although these categories are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive:

  1. Women who fear persecution on the same Convention grounds, and in similar circumstances, as men.
  2. Women who fear persecution solely for reasons pertaining to kinship, i.e. because of the status, activities or views of their spouses, parents, and siblings, or other family members .
  3. Women who fear persecution resulting from certain circumstances of severe discrimination on grounds of gender or acts of violence either by public authorities or at the hands of private citizens from whose actions the state is unwilling or unable to adequately protect the concerned persons.
  4. Women who fear persecution as the consequence of failing to conform to, or for transgressing, certain gender-discriminating religious or customary laws and practices in their country of origin.

There is well established anti refugee sentiment that has emerged in recent years and it is important to note, contrary to government and media sensationalism, Canada is not being “inundated” by refugee claimants and actually represent approximately 4% of all applications through Citizenship and Immigration Canada.


Mexico, by all accounts is in a precarious state and  some Mexicans have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country and need Canada’s protection.  There are significant human rights abuses occurring in Mexico.  In fact, Canada has been criticized by the UN Committee Against Torture for failing to offer refugee protection to a Mexican survivor of torture, Enrique Falcon Rios. 

In 2009, in response to Mexicans seeking asylum in Canada, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, in a knee jerk response, imposed a mandatory visa on all visitors from Mexico, alleging that too many requests from asylum seekers originating from Mexico were false. Other than Indigenous populations, Canada is country that is made up entirely of immigrants and their descendants, this gesture is one of several measures recently put into place by the Canadian government that is targeted to unf
airly, selectively restrict access to Canadian territory. For reasons that are not clear, Citizenship and Immigration Canada along with the IRB seeming have an inability to recognize a serious human rights situation in Mexico.   This was evidenced in October 2009, when
a 24 year old Mexican woman was deported from Canada to her death.



Paola Ortiz

In 2006, Paola Ortiz arrived in Montreal after fleeing a situation of violence in Mexico, her country or origin. There she was a victim of violent physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by her then-husband, a federal police officer. We don’t have the benefit of knowing the evidence the IRB was working with but generally, anyone that knows anything about Mexico knows what that means.  Upon her arrival in Canada, Paola Ortiz requested refugee status from Canada. The Immigration and Refugee Board refused her application one year later, under the pretext that the Mexican state provided adequate protection to women survivors of violence in an intimate relationship. However, many sources from the field including through our work at Battered Women’s Support Services highlights that the situation of violence for women in Mexico is grim because of the almost absolute impunity accorded to its perpetrators. 

Summer 2011, Paola was detained for one week at the Immigration Detention Centre in Laval Quebec, separated from her children a girl and a boy who were born in Canada. She waited in limbo, awaiting a deportation date that could be issued and executed. It was reported that Paola had been dealing with the effects of trauma brought on by the brutal abuse inflicted on her by her ex husband.  In the week before she was deported Paola’s lawyer submitted a request for a stay of her deportation, in her interests and those of her children. 

Battered Women’s Support Services joined the over 100 individuals and 25 organizations including Quebec based women’s organizations condemning Paola’s deportation. Alexa Conradi, President, Fédération des femmes du Québec – FFQ  issued this statement, “It is totally unrealistic to think that Mrs. Ortiz, who fled to Canada to escape domestic violence, may benefit from the protection of the police authorities once back in the Mexico. The situation in this country is well known.”  The Citizenship and Immigration Canada Office of Removals was overwhelmed with calls asking for Canada to reconsider and the day Paola was to be deported Trudeau Airport was filled with Paola’s friends, neighbours and members of Solidarity Across Borders who had been supporting Paola through this process.  Paola was deported on Friday, September 23, 2011.  Co-op Media Montreal wrote Saturday, September 24, 2011 that the deportation of Paola Ortiz was a “Canadian disgrace”. 

Taking Action

Intimate partner violence is still not seen as a reason to be granted refugee status in Canada.  Further, for countries that are perceived by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and IRB as having democratic laws when women are seeking asylum for gender persecution there is an unwillingness to recognize that whatever laws there are “on the books” supposedly designed to protect women are not actually enforced by the country’s institutions, law enforcement or legal systems.  That in many “democratic” countries with legal systems, enforcement of laws is ultimately the test and what we have seen and what has been confirmed by doing this kind of refugee advocacy is that the last benefit of law enforcement and the legal systems are women.  Mexico has been illuminated in our work and especially Mexican women who are marginalized by class, race and those living the full effects of imperialism and globalization are at great risk confirmed by the violence in cuidad Juarez where 430 girls and women have disappeared in Mexico’s Chihuahua state since 1993

Refugee women are one of the most marginalized groups of women in Canada.  Battered Women Support Services works with Refugee Women and we receive referrals from Immigrant serving organizations, settlement workers and organizations from around BC and Canada as well as from the Mexican consulate.  In the past year, we have provided advocacy for approximately  14 Refugee Women, nine women’s refugee applications were successful (Mexico-five, Honduras-one, Chile-one, Colombia-one and Guatemala –one) and five women, all seeking asylum from Mexico, were deported.  Our work with women involves dealing the impact of trauma, the emotional, cognitive and physical results of sexual and physical abuse, systemic and institutional advocacy. 

Refugee women receive support with employment through our specialized employment program, where women navigate the challenges of not actually being allowed to work in Canada and not being eligible for public supports such as income assistance.  Through our employment program women receive information about systems and institutions receive support learning about Canada.  We offer support groups in Spanish, parenting support for women who are mothers, accompaniment to IRB and to lawyers working very closely with lawyers because they don’t always understand violence against women in intimate relationships. We provide interpretation and translation specifically to translate documents as every system including legal aid requires documents translation.  We provide a pro  bono legal clinic so that Refugee women get thorough and accurate legal information, we provide assistance for women to access housing “permanent” or temporary.  Refugee women are routinely denied support services due to their lack of status in Canada so women are often unable to access transition houses.  And we have immigration lawyers on speed dial, that is kind of a joke, but not really. 

The need to provide support to marginalized women along with advocacy with a strong feminist analysis of violence against women is critical and, in general, women’s and immigrant serving groups tend to lack access to appropriate information, to have the resources, financial or human, or the training in the legal and related issues for effective advocacy.  Churches have been on the frontline supporting refugees and as the main advocates they have tended to lack knowledge in effective advocacy skills, and an appropriate analysis of violence and gender.

Battered Women’s Support Services is preparing print and online resources for women, concerned community members and front-line workers who support Refugee women, in general and specifically Refugee women who have sought asylum in Canada due to gender persecution.  We are committed to this work because women continue to need protection.  We remain concerned for Paola and her safety and hope she will be able to access support in Mexico from grassroots women who are taking action against male violence individually, in community and within society.  At Battered Women’s Support Services we are committed and we will do our work.  We wish that every country would be a safe place for girls and women.  We are committed do whatever we’re able to make Canada one place in the world that is a safe place for girls and women.

Here’s more about Gender Persecution and Refugee Law Reform in Canada In Response to: The Balanced Refugee Reform Act (BILL C-11) Written in April 2011 Lobat Sadrehashemi for Battered Women’s Support Services

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