Canada is Shutting the Door on Refugee Survivors
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision on the Safe Third Country Agreement, a refugee deal with the US that harms refugees, including refugees who are survivors of gender-based violence.
What is the Safe Third Country Agreement?
The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) is a repressive and exclusionary refugee policy, first signed by the U.S. and Canada in 2004. The Agreement effectively creates a fortress against refugees attempting to seek asylum in Canada via the U.S.
Until recently, the STCA forbade most people who arrive to Canada through official land crossings from making a refugee claim and they were sent back to the U.S to face possible solitary confinement, detention, and deportation.
In March 2023, Canada and US reached a deal to even further expand the STCA. Now refugees arriving at any and all unofficial land and water border crossings, like Roxham Road in Quebec, can also be refused from claiming asylum in Canada and are sent back to the U.S. This forces migrants and refugees to make more irregular, dangerous, and unsafe crossings to seek protection and safety in Canada.
One week after the expansion of STCA was announced, eight Indian and Romanian people were found in the St. Lawrence River in Akwesasne.
What was the Supreme Court of Canada’s Decision on the STCA?
Just days before World Refugee Day 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada failed to rule that the STCA violates refugees’ rights and did not rule that the STCA was unconstitutional. The Court did, however, find that the U.S is not a safe country for refugees who were being sent back there, and has directed the Federal Court of Canada to determine whether the STCA breaches gender equality rights under the Canadian Charter.
The Court found that the U.S has consistently denied refugee status specifically to many survivors fleeing gender-based persecution. LEAF, West Coast LEAF, and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, who intervened in the case to highlight gender equity issues, note that “By focusing on the section 15 [equality rights] claim, we were able to highlight the importance of acknowledging the unique harms faced by women and refugees marginalized because of gender… The Court responded and acknowledged this substantive claim needs to be addressed.”
However, while this additional legal challenge makes its way through the courts, the STCA continues to be in effect.
BWSS condemns the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision as well as the cruel and xenophobic expansion of the STCA. Both these recent developments further racist and misogynist violence.
We echo the statement issued last week by over 130 organisations on World Refugee Day to our federal leaders: “We are writing to demand that Canada withdraw from the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the United States to ensure that individuals seeking refuge can do so without risking their lives… The STCA and its recent expansion has effectively closed Canada’s borders to refugees, forcing them to take dangerous and difficult journeys to reach safety… We must also acknowledge the racism inherent in policies that restrict access to safety by specifically targeting people fleeing from the Global South.”
Refugee Survivors of Gender-Based Violence
Gender-based persecution is a top reason that women seek asylum in Canada, with domestic violence accounting for about half of all gender-based persecution refugee claims.
Gender persecution can include sexual violence, forced marriage, and discrimination based on gender or gender identity, among other forms of persecution.
In 1993, Canada became the first country to issue guidelines on refugee women claimants fleeing gender-related persecution, and there are guidelines highlighting “Gender Considerations in Proceedings Before the Immigration and Refugee Board.”
However, survivors making refugee claims in Canada based on gender-based persecution still face significant challenges when seeking asylum, including:
- Lack of understanding and recognition: Some immigration officials and Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) members may not properly understand and uphold gender-based violence. Gendered myths, stereotypes, and incorrect assumptions are not uncommon during IRB hearings. For example, Halima Alari – who fled after more than a decade of domestic abuse – was found to be not credible in her refugee hearing after she was asked by an IRB judge “why her husband didn’t kill her instead.”
- Language barriers: Survivors may struggle to communicate their experiences of gender-based persecution in a language that immigration officials and IRB members understand.
- Stigma and discrimination: Survivors who have experienced gender persecution may face stigma and discrimination from immigration officials or IRB members or other members of society, which can make it difficult for them to access support.
- Trauma and mental health issues: Survivors who have experienced gender persecution may suffer from trauma and mental health issues because of their experiences, which can make it difficult for them to navigate the asylum process.
When survivors seek asylum based on gender persecution, it is important that they are provided with appropriate support and resources.
This includes access to legal services and representation, mental health support, and other resources to help them navigate the refugee process. It is important for policymakers, advocates, and service providers to recognize and address the unique challenges faced by survivors who are seeking asylum based on gender persecution. This includes providing appropriate support and resources, working to address systemic barriers to accessing asylum based on gender persecution, and expanding existing guidelines on gender-based persecution.
Migrant and refugee survivors are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence even once in Canada due to a combination of factors such as their precarious status as migrants, their gender, and their social and economic position.
They often face discrimination, marginalization, language barriers, and cultural isolation which can make it difficult to access information, support, and services. The unique and heightened fear of detention and deportation can also discourage migrant and refugee survivors from seeking support when they are victims of gender-based violence, which can further increase their vulnerability to abuse.
Gender-based violence can take many forms, including physical, sexual, and psychological violence, as well as economic exploitation and forced labor.
It can occur within the family or community, as well as in the workplace or during the migration process itself. During the migration process, survivors are at risk of state violence, which includes acts of violence committed by state actors or institutions such as law enforcement, immigration officials, immigration detention facilities, child services agencies, deportation enforcement, and separation from children and families.
To address state violence against migrant and refugee survivors, it is important to advocate for migrant rights, support organizations that work with migrant women, advocate for policies that protect migrant and refugee rights, promote greater accountability and transparency in the actions of state actors and institutions, and address the root causes of migration and displacement such as poverty, conflict, and climate change.
By addressing these issues, we can help to create more sustainable and equitable societies that support the rights and dignity of all individuals, including migrant and refugee survivors.
In the immediate, we call for the end of the Safe Third Country Agreement.
We stand with migrant, refugee, and immigrant women, girls, and LGBTQ2I+ people impacted by racist, xenophobic, classist and sexist immigration policies.
Safety, solidarity, and status for all survivors!