OTTAWA — A refugee advocacy group is urging the federal Liberals to immediately act on their election promise to repeal a provision the group says is trapping women in abusive relationships.
The Canadian Council for Refugees says a consultation with dozens of front-line immigration organizations confirms its fears that the three-year-old measure has increased the vulnerability of many newcomers, most of them women.
In October 2012, the government said a spouse or partner from abroad who has been in a relationship with a Canadian sponsor for two years or less would be granted only conditional permanent residence.
The newcomer would then have to remain in a bona fide relationship with their sponsor for two years or more following arrival - or risk having their permanent residence status revoked and face possible deportation.
Groups including the council for refugees expressed grave concerns, saying the measure would increase the risk of spousal abuse.
After an outcry, an exception to the measure was added for victims of abuse, but the council says the exemption process is not working due to red tape, language barriers and the burden of proving mistreatment.
The council, which contacted over 140 settlement organizations, legal clinics and women's shelters, found a lack of information about the conditional residence provision was a significant challenge, especially outside major urban centres.
Only 62 per cent were aware of the condition, and just 40 per cent knew about the exception.
"It is impossible to know how many women have been trapped in relationships because of lack of access to information about the exception, and lack of support," says the council's summary of findings released Wednesday.
The Liberals have committed to repealing conditional permanent residence, though it is unclear when or how the new government might follow through.
The provision ushered in by the former Conservative government is bad for women, council president Loly Rico said in a statement. "It gives more power to abusive sponsors and makes it harder for newcomer women to leave an unhealthy relationship."
The council says organizations that tried to made use of the exception for victims ran into several roadblocks:
— Not all Citizenship and Immigration representatives understood the rules of the condition, and misleading information was often provided;
— An apparent lack of training on spousal violence for officers conducting interviews to decide whether an exception would be granted;
— Compiling evidence was onerous, and proving emotional or psychological abuse often difficult;
— Officials did not always respond promptly to requests for an exception, causing stress and trauma.
The council describes an "emotionally draining" eight-month-long process a Norwegian woman, identified only as Jane, went through to obtain an exemption after her Canadian husband became verbally and sexually abusive.
Citizenship and Immigration spokeswoman Nancy Caron said the government is sensitive to the issue of family violence and will study the issues raised by the council.
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