A grassroots campaign scored a major victory last month when the Canadian Border Services Agency issued a directive to enforcement officers telling them to stay away from shelters or other spaces for women who are escaping domestic violence.

In October, the Director of Inland Immigration Enforcement, GTA Region, for the Canadian Border Services Agency told his officers that women who leave an abusive situation to the safety of a shelter or other community service have a right to confidentiality and access to support services.

“When conducting a road investigation, officers will not enter shelters or other spaces designated as resources for women fleeing/experiencing violence,” said Reg Williams, in his letter of October 29.

“Officers are not to wait outside or approach the above-noted spaces and will maintain a reasonable distance. Officers are not to approach the above-noted spaces to make any inquires into the identity of women who may be the subject of an immigration investigation. This includes inquiries made to the staff, volunteers and other residents.”

In 2008, the Shelter|Sanctuary|Status Campaign was launched to prevent immigration enforcement from entering shelters or other anti-violence against women spaces.

For too long, migrant activists had seen women and trans-people denied refugee status and deported to death; seen migrant women forced to work in exploitative and vulnerable conditions and denied workplace protections; seen undocumented women, particularly survivors of violence, unable to access support in the GTA for fear of being arrested, detained and deported; and seen undocumented women targeted and arrested in places they gathered for support and strength.

After we mobilized across the city, on the streets, at rallies and at press conferences and openly challenged Immigration Enforcement offices, the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre (GTEC) had no choice but to pass this directive,” said Farrah Miranda, an activist with the Shelter|Sanctuary|Status Campaign. “We insist that deportation is violence, it is violence against women, it is violence against people that live in Toronto and must end.”

Jane Kali, Executive Director of Sistering said, “We are not holding our breath to wait and see if GTEC actually implements this directive. We are getting to work right away, educating the women who use our services and our partner agencies about this directive.

The Shelter|Sanctuary|Status campaign held a press conference on Thursday, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre to announce the changes.  

And while they’re pleased with the new directive, activists made it clear that the fight for a stay on all deportations (particularly for women, children and trans-people who are survivors of violence) and a full and inclusive regularization program continues.

The Shelter|Sanctuary|Status Campaign is part of the Sanctuary City project by No One Is Illegal-Toronto that is organizing to ensure that undocumented people are able to access all municipal and provincial services without fear, and able to work and live with justice and dignity in the Greater Toronto Area without the fear of detention or deportation.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.