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Canada Needs a Plan to Address Violence Against Immigrant and Refugee Women

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Recent changes to Canadian immigration policy mean fewer social and health supports for immigrant women with a precarious immigration status -- putting them at an increased risk of violence, researchers say.

"Between 2008 and 2013, the Canadian government introduced an unprecedented number of legislative and regulatory changes that have affected immigrants' and refugees' access to legal representation, access to social and health services, and pathways to permanent residence," said Associate Professor Rupaleem Bhuyan of the University of Toronto's Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

Bhuyan is the lead author of "Unprotected, unrecognized: Canadian immigration policy and violence against women," 2008-2013. The study is part of the Migrant Mothers Project, a collaborative research project led by Bhuyan in partnership with a network of community groups working to address violence against immigrant women.

The report calls for a national plan to address violence against immigrant and refugee women and immigration policies that better support immigrants in precarious circumstances. It calls on the federal government to abolish the two-year conditional status for sponsored spouses, reinstate access to the Interim Federal Health program to all refugee claimants and uphold the privacy of all people who have access to social and health services.

More than one million people live in Canada on a temporary visa, as international students, temporary foreign workers or refugee claimants, Bhuyan said. They are regularly turned away by service providers in health care, women's shelters and other support services because they are not permanent residents or convention refugees and, therefore, not eligible for services.

At the same time, stringent new policies have been introduced, such as the two-year conditional permanent residence for newly-sponsored spouses/partners, bring "undue hardship for newcomers who are facing domestic violence," said Bhuyan.

"For women who are facing violence, access to shelter, income support and legal assistance can often be the difference between returning to an abusive situation and independence from a violent relationship."

The project also includes a collection of digital stories by migrant women and their advocates, documenting their personal struggles first hand: Till Immigration Tears Us Apart: Stories of Strength through Struggle.The threat of detention and deportation is poignantly described in the digital story Leaving my child behind, Bhuyan said.

"After being denied refugee status, the mother and her child struggle to build lives without proper identification," said Bhuyan. "They are nobody in the eyes of the state."

Grassroots groups and anti-violence against women organizations have been vocal in their opposition to policies that increase immigrant women's vulnerability to domestic violence, Bhuyan said, but don't feel the non-governmental sector has been consulted in a meaningful way.

"We are invited to voice our opinions but there is no accountability," said Harmy Mendoza, executive director of WomanACT, the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto. "We need a dialogue to ensure the most vulnerable in our country are not ignored."

The report ends on a hopeful note, acknowledging the valuable work being done by community and grassroots groups to support the rights of immigrants and refugees.

"Amidst the sense of crisis in immigrant serving organizations we also learned about inspiring community and grassroots campaigns that are advocating for and with immigrants and refugees," said Bhuyan. "We hope this report and digital stories can illustrate the humanity of people living with a precarious immigration status in Canada, who are seeking to build lives free from violence."

This study was co-authored by Bethany Osborne, Sajedeh Zaraei and Sarah Tarshis with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's Standard Research Grant, an award from CERIS-The Ontario Metropolis Centre, and the Connaught New Researcher Award from the University of Toronto.

Jelena Damjanovic writes about community outreach and urban partnerships for U of T News.