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Community groups demand an end to Immigration Enforcement entering women's shelters

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The entry into a downtown Toronto shelter by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) on February 27 brought a renewed demand for prompt action from the Shelter | Sanctuary | Status Coalition, a growing movement of over 120 anti-Violence Against Women Organizations.

Fariah Chowdhury, an organizer with the Shelter | Sanctuary | Status Coalition, told a crowded press conference Monday at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre that at the end of February immigration enforcement officers “invaded” a women’s shelter in search of Jane, a single mother and violence survivor from Ghana.

In 1999, Jane (not her real name) came to Canada from Ghana. From the age of eight until she was 18-years-old, she was held hostage in a home where she was sexually abused daily. She managed to escape when she was 18, eventually making her way to Canada. “I was looking for safety,” she said in a note read by Chowdhury. (Jane did not appear at the formal press conference)

Since she’s been in Canada, Jane said she’s faced constant abuse, waking up at 3:30 am every morning to travel across the city to work on assembly lines in factories. When she had her baby a few years ago, she needed to move into a shelter. A few months ago, she left the shelter but continued to return for parties and celebrations.

Last week, Jane got a call from one of the shelter residents who told her that immigration officers came into the shelter to look for her. “I never thought that immigration would actually do something so low,” she said. “I am not a criminal. I am a human being. I have the right to be in a shelter without being afraid that they will come to get me.”

But this isn’t just a story about Jane or the CBSA. It’s about all non-status women who are survivors of violence, about a flawed immigration system that traps almost 200,000 non-status residents in the Greater Toronto Area under exploited and marginalized conditions. Despite the fact that they contribute billions to the Canadian economy.

“Immigration raids on shelters are an absolute outrage and must end immediately,” said Chowdhury. “Shelters are some of the few places where women find space to piece their lives together. The threat of detention and deportation shatter any such possibility, forcing women to remain in hiding.”

The CBSA actions will force women to remain living in abusive or dangerous situations, said the Coalition, out of fear that their shelters might be raided, entrenching systemic abuse against non-status women who are already unable to access healthcare, food banks, education or well-paying jobs.

The Coalition also expressed deep concern about reports that the CBSA expects women’s shelters to turn over women who have sought safety under their roofs. So they’re calling for the CBSA to immediately stop any surveillance of or approach to women’s shelters.

Since the beginning of the women’s anti-violence movement in Canada over 30 years ago, rape crisis centres and women’s community services, including shelters, have held the safety and confidentiality of their clients as their primary mandate.

“It’s common knowledge amongst law enforcement officials that women’s shelters do not reveal the names of women and children staying with them for safety reasons,” said Eileen Morrow, Coordinator of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), the Ontario provincial women’s anti-violence emergency shelter association.

“Shelter confidentiality policy protects women from being found and stalked by abusers while supporting women and children who have not yet come to the shelter by reinforcing our promise that we will provide a safe and supportive space.”

But when enforcement officers violate the safety of a women’s shelter to execute their orders on a woman, they send a message to all women that the shelter is neither a safe or confidential space. “Women who get this message may not call a women’s service for help when their lives are in danger,” said Morrow. “Enforcement activities should not trump a woman’s right to safety.”

On Monday, Helena Guergis, Minister of State (Status of Women) said: “Violence against women, especially in vulnerable communities, is an ongoing issue. Just as we must continue to end violence against women, we must take action to help ensure women’s economic security and keep encouraging their participation in democracy.”

Morrow called on Guergis to intervene in this issue to ensure that women without status (who are escaping into Canada to flee violence and exploitation or who experience violence while in Canada) can access shelter and other women’s anti-violence services without fear of detention or deportation.

Since Jane came forward with her story, more shelters and residents have joined the Shelter | Sanctuary | Status campaign, sharing their stories about immigration enforcement, raids and harassment.

“Deportation is a kind of violence against women that’s being perpetrated now by public policy, apparently,” said Anna Willats, a professor in the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor/Advocate program at George Brown College.

“That victimization can happen at the hands of police, CBSA agents or other representatives of the government and the state. Deportation tears families apart, uproots women from their communities and sends them back to horrific violence that can lead to their death.”

So why target these women?

“Easy to go after the people who are very vulnerable,” said Willats. “These are not women who are threatening me as a Canadian citizen. These are women who are desperately trying to keep their families together.”

And where is CBSA getting their information?

“Is an abuser calling up CBSA?” asked Willats. “Is that who they’re listening to for their information? If that is the case, then we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. Where the word of abusers is held above the safety and security of a woman and her children.”

That’s why the Coalition is fighting for full immigration status for all women through a complete and inclusive regularization program across Canada.

“We are also demanding a moratorium on deportations for all women surviving violence,” said Deb Singh, counsellor at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. “Women have the right to be safe.”

But lawyer Karin Baqi fears that women’s safety is being compromised with dramatic legal and policy shifts by the Harper government over the last year.

For example, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced last fall his plans to overhaul the refugee determination process, which Baqi said would create a two-tier system where people from some countries will have their claims processed by an officer as opposed to an independent tribunal.

“We already know that claims of gender-based persecution are not given the serious attention they deserve,” said Baqi, who is also the acting Executive Director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.

“The Board often states that if a woman is from a country that on paper is a democracy that she should be able to avail herself of State protection at home. But we clearly know that this is not the case.”

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