Women seeking asylum in Canada

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When Donald Trump won the US presidential elections in November 2016, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was open to asylum seekers and anyone who needed protection. He said that his country offered refugee protection to people who feared persecution and who were unwilling or unable to return to their home country.

Canada’s asylum seeking regime is crystal clear. Immigration Officers review refugee claims and refer those they consider eligible to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), which then decides who is a Convention refugee and who is a person in need of protection.

The IRB considers Convention refugees those who are outside their home country, or the country they normally live in, and who are not able to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality or for belonging to a specific group, like people of a particular sexual orientation.


'Canada offers refugee protection to people who fear persecution and are unable to return to their home country.'


On the other hand, the IRB considers that a person in need of protection is someone who is already in Canada, but who cannot return to their home country safely because if they did, they would be in danger of being tortured, threatened with death or subjected to cruelty or severe punishment.

However, in some cases, refugee claims are not elegible for IRB’s consideration. This would be the case if the asylum seeker has been recognised as a Convention refugee by another country they can return to; if they had made a refugee claim before being found not eligible or had been rejected by the IRB or had abandoned a previous claim; if they are not admissible on security grounds (e.g. criminal activity or human rights violations); and if they had arrived via the Canada-US border.

The last point refers to the Safe Third Country Agreement, an arrangement Canada has with the US whereby people who want to make a refugee claim must do so in the first safe country they arrive in, meaning that if they enter Canada at a land border from the US, they cannot make a refugee claim in Canada, they should do it in the US instead.

Canada-US border asylum seekers

Going back to Trump. Since he was elected President and went ahead with his first immigration order, the number of US refugees who have entered Canada illegally to seek asylum has spiked. During the first two months of 2017, about 2100 US refugees crossed the border into Canada. This represented double the number registered the previous year. Only in February 2017, 646 US refugees crossed the border into Quebec, which represents a 600 per cent jump from the previous year.

Due to the Safe Third Country Agreement, many of those who have already sought asylum in the US are trying to cross into Canada illegally in order to make a refugee claim there. If they were to enter the country through an official border crossing, they would be turned away under the Agreement. Therefore, many attempt to cross through unguarded border points. Once they are on Canadian soil, even if they are arrested, they are allowed to claim asylum in this country.

However, crossing the Canada-US border can be extremely dangerous. As reported by The Guardian earlier this year, Mavis Otuteye, a 57-year-old woman from Ghana who is believed to have been attempting to seek asylum in Canada, died from hypothermia in a remote part of northern Minnesota while she trying to cross the border. But she’s not the only victim of this exodus into Canada. Although Seidu Mohammed did cross the border, he lost all his fingers to frostbite in the attempt. After a few months, the IRB gave him the right to stay in Canada since his return to Ghana would be too dangerous because of his bisexuality.

Canada’s commitment to women refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi met with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last November to applaud his work so far with refugees and to persuade him to take part in new projects. Grandi urged Trudeau to partner with the refugee agency to create a settlement programme for women at risk, and he insisted that the programme be run outside the normal refugee intake plan.

A spokesperson from the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement that during their meeting, Grandi and Trudeau discussed ‘their concerns regarding the plight of refugees from Myanmar, and noted the particular vulnerability of women refugees. The Prime Minister and the High Commissioner welcomed Canada's strong partnership with UNHCR.’

This is another commitment Canada is making to protecting refugee women – but it’s not the first one. Canada has its own declaration on refugee protection for women and the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) department recognises the right of refugee women to receive international protection on an equal basis with men, particularly from persecution based on gender. To ensure this, the department has committed to a number of initiatives, which include:

  • Recognising that women may be persecuted on similar grounds as men, but that the forms of persecution may be different
  • Recognising that women may be subject to persecution simply because they are women
  • Recognising that because of domestic responsibilities and financial dependence, women are far less mobile than men
  • Recognising that women and children in refugee camps are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation
  • Questioning with sensitivity, awareness of the signs of gender-related persecution, and knowledge of conditions affecting women in source countries are required of those who deal with refugee women
  • Ensuring that women making refugee claims have the option of being interviewed by female officers, with the assistance of trained female interpreters

Compared to other countries such as the United Kingdom, where there’s a lack of trained female interpreters and gender-based sensitivity when questioning, Canada is well ahead of the game. However, there’s still work to be done. Perhaps Trudeau’s agreement with Grandi will open new paths for refugee women, offering them the protection they require.