The Government of Canada has proposed the introduction of a conditional residence period of two years or more for some sponsored spouses. OCASI has serious reservations and concerns about the proposal, which would increase the vulnerability of women and put them at risk.
If adopted, the proposed measure would apply to spouses and partners who have been in a relationship with their sponsor for two years or less at the time of the sponsorship application. It would apply from the time the sponsored spouse or partner becomes a permanent resident in Canada. Permanent resident status can be revoked if the sponsored spouse or partner does not remain in a “bona fide” relationship with the sponsor during the conditional period, which could be two years or longer from the time of permanent residency.
Several studies have noted that a woman who arrives in Canada as a sponsored spouse is particularly vulnerable and can be at serious risk of abuse. These include Nowhere to Turn? Responding to partner violence against immigrant and visible minority women: Voices of Frontline Workersby Ekuwa Smith (Canadian Council on Social Development, 2004) and Sponsorship… For Better or For Worse The Impact of Sponsorship on the Equality Rights of Immigrant Women by Andrée Côté, Michèle Kérisit & Marie-Louise Côté (Status of Women Canada, 2001). The 2004 report notes that immigrant women are more likely to suffer physical and psychological abuse by their partners and less likely to report it. It quotes a frontline worker as follows:
“The women are told that as sponsored arrivals in this country, they have no legal rights, no rights in general, and that if they complain to anyone, the husbands can have them deported and keep the children because these men are Canadian citizens and therefore have all the rights."
While not all sponsored women experience abuse in their spousal or conjugal relationship, this proposal would increase the existing power imbalance in the sponsor relationship. At present, many immigrant women in a situation of spousal abuse are often not aware of their right to seek protection or are unable or unwilling to do so for many different reasons. The proposed change would effectively compel women and their children to stay in an abusive situation.
OCASI is sympathetic to, and supports the goal of countering marriage fraud which is the intention of the proposed measure, but not at the cost of placing women and children at risk. Women's right to seek safety in the case of abuse must not be compromised under any circumstances.
The proposed measure is announced at a time when there is growing awareness of spousal abuse, particularly within an immigration relationship. The Minister of Immigration announced changes to the Citizenship Guide in mid-March this year, including the statement that forced marriage is not tolerated in Canada. Over the last year, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario has carried out extensive public education on the impact of forced marriage.
The main concerns with the proposed measure are as follows:
- Making permanent residency conditional on staying in the marriage for two years traps women into staying in abusive relationships for fear of losing their status.
- Children will also be hurt, for example when they remain with their parent in an abusive home, or if they face being separated from one parent if the sponsored parent is removed from Canada.
- Making permanent residency conditional for the sponsored partner/spouse puts all the power into the hands of the sponsor, who can use the precarity of his or her partner's status as a tool for manipulation – at any time, he can declare the spouse fraudulent and have her deported. This can be a constant threat and source of fear for the sponsored person.
- This power imbalance affects all sponsored partners, regardless of the “genuineness” of the relationship, and reinforces unequal gendered power dynamics.
- Given that many sponsored immigrants, especially women, have little knowledge of their rights, it is not realistic to suggest that they would come forward to the immigration authorities to report an abusive relationship.
- The suggestion that some cases would be “targeted for fraud” raises fears of possible racial, national or ethnic stereotyping and discrimination.
- The notice mentions that similar policies are already in place in the UK, Australia and the U.S. But experts in those countries have reported that conditional status creates the problems mentioned above, putting women at risk and giving increased power to abusive sponsors.
OCASI encourages you to take action by submitting comments on the proposal to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). Comments must be submitted by Monday April 25 to Justine Akman, [email protected]