Vulnerable women should be protected, not deported, says group after downtown shelter searched by Canada Border Service Agency

When Canada Border Services agents entered a downtown women’s shelter Feb. 27 in search of “Jane”, a non-status rape victim and single mother from Ghana, all they accomplished was her re-victimization and re-traumatization, allege a collective of anti-violence against women advocates last week.

With a banner declaring “deportation is violence against women” above their heads, seven representatives of organizations supporting the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign spoke out against the “unprecedented attack” at an emergency press conference at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.

“Why target these women? This smacks to me of lazy policing – it’s easy to go after the people who are very vulnerable; easy to go after the people who have few resources,” decried Anna Willats, a 10-year veteran professor with George Brown’s Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor/Advocate Program.

“The Canada Border Service Agency’s policy (of entering shelters to look for non-status women) is one that contributes to violence against women and it must be changed…deportation is a system that tears families apart, that takes women, uproots them from communities where they’ve established roots, and sends them back to horrific violence – to violence that could lead to their death.”

In the case of Jane, whose real name was withheld for the sake of her safety, that life of horrific violence began was she was just eight years old. Her parents, faced with the prospect of losing their daughter to grave illness, turned to a rural voodoo doctor in Ghana for help. The cost of curing her, however, was lifelong ownership of the girl.

Thus abandoned by her parents, young Jane spent the next decade of her life “held hostage” as a virtual sex slave, she said. She was raped on an almost daily basis. She escaped once, but was tracked down and brought back for more abuse.

It wasn’t until ten years of such abuse had passed that Jane was finally able to break free, she said. She fled to Canada in 1999 on a visitor’s visa. Here, she had an apartment, a car, a job, a life. She gave birth to her daughter here in Toronto. She was relatively happy and totally independent.

All that changed in 2006, when Jane’s refugee application was denied. An appeal saw the same result. A deportation order was filed, and Jane became desperate.

If deported back to Ghana, Jane fears those who took away her innocence as a young child will reassert their ownership rights over both her and her three-year-old daughter. She wants a much happier childhood for her daughter and a better life for them both. That’s why she went to Beatrice House, a downtown shelter, in the first place – as a refuge against the prospect of deportation back to a life of misery and violence, she admitted.

But the sense of safety and security she once felt in the arms of Toronto’s shelter system were shattered Feb. 27 when Jane received word that CBSA officers entered Beatrice House looking for her.

“I wasn’t staying there anymore, but one of the residents from the shelter called me. She told me that immigration officers came into the shelter looking for me,” she recalled, sitting huddled in a back room of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, away from prying camera lenses and shrouded by a scarf and dark sunglasses.

“I never thought Immigration would actually do something so low. I am not a criminal. I am a human being and shouldn’t be treated like this. I have the right to be in a shelter without being afraid that they will come to get me.”

The CBSA, however, begs to differ. In an email to The Guardian, the agency’s communications manager Anna Pape said that, while uncommon, CBSA does hold the authority to access shelters “in order to enforce outstanding immigration warrants.”

“The CBSA would only enter shelters in cases where a proactive investigation leads them there. In these rare cases, when entry to a shelter becomes necessary, the situation is always approached with sensitivity and discretion,” she said, noting that, to date, none of their visits have involved direct contact with residents, searches of living quarters, or physical altercations.

The problem with that policy, advocates contended Monday, is that the resultant threat of detention and deportation might force women and children to remain in an abusive situation.

Eileen Morrow, coordinator of the Ontario Association for Interval and Transition Houses, said the practice must stop.

“When enforcement officers violate the safety of a women’s shelter to execute their orders on any one woman, they send a message to other women that the shelter is not a safe or confidential space,” she said.

“Enforcement activities of the CBSA should not trump the women’s right to safety. With or without immigration status in this country, women have a human right to safety from violence, and with or without warrants the CBSA must stop looking for migrant and refugee women at shelters and other women’s services.”

Jane, meanwhile, has decided to remain in hiding; to shelter-hop until CBSA authorities give up trying to find her.

“I’m like a mouse, I’m still hiding. I want my status – to get my permanent residency to stay in Canada, but I’ve been denied for everything. That’s the struggle,” she said. “It’s been very difficult and I go through a lot of pain. I don’t sleep in my life. Even my baby, too, she is going through a lot of stress. She is Canadian but does not enjoy a Canadian’s life.”

The Shelter Sanctuary Status Coalition, a growing movement of more than 120 anti-violence against women organizations across Toronto, is demanding the CBSA immediately stop visiting or waiting outside shelters or organizations that provide services to women; that women fleeing domestic abuse and violence be given status immediately; and that a full and inclusive regularization program be implemented.

For more information, go to–women-s-advocates-want-an-end-to-shelter-searches


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