A change in government regulations will make life a lot safer for victims of domestic abuse who recently immigrated to Canada.
On April 28, the federal government announced the elimination of conditional permanent residence. This status was conferred to permanent residents who were sponsored by a Canadian spouse or partner with whom they had been in a relationship for less than two years and with whom they had no children in common. In such cases, true permanent residence could only be achieved after two years of cohabitation with the sponsoring spouse or partner.
The previous government established conditional permanent residence to crack down on immigration and marriage fraud. Although such concerns have merit, they can be handled in the initial processing stage where a small percentage of suspicious applications are refused. By eliminating the two-year-cohabitation requirement, the current government is acknowledging that most spousal sponsorship applications are made in good faith.
While perhaps well-intentioned, conditional permanent residence made sponsored women particularly vulnerable to conjugal violence, according to Melpa Kamateros, co-founder and executive director of Shield of Athena, a Montreal-based non-profit organization for victims of family violence offering emergency shelter and professional services to women and their children since 1991.
“We had heard promises that this stipulation might be eliminated, but we were thrilled to see it actually confirmed,” says Kamateros. “It means that women no longer have to stay with an abusive spouse for two years just so they can remain in the country.”
The threat of deportation is a trump card that some abusers can use against their victims. For many women, their immigration status can impede them from walking away from a potentially dangerous situation. Even if they are permanent residents, they may believe their sponsor’s empty threats to have them deported.
Blackmail, fear of deportation, and fear of separation from their children deter victims of conjugal violence from coming forward. Sponsorship conditions, like the two-year-cohabitation requirement, only escalate the dependency that occurs for an immigrant woman who is experiencing abused. Such conditions also amplify her insecurity and vulnerability, often forcing her to stay in a dangerous situation because she has no other choice.
Although a conditional permanent resident who left her sponsor within two years of arrival was subject to deportation, there was an exception if conjugal violence could be proven. However, such an exception must be known in order to be useful.
Unfortunately, many abused immigrant women are ill-informed about their rights, and language barriers prevent them from seeking help or finding out what their rights are. Also, they often feel guilty about reporting their spouse out of fear he will be deported and forced to go back to unsafe conditions. Many come from countries where experience has taught them not to trust police or the government. These are among the many complex reasons why many immigration lawyers, victims’ advocates and outreach workers were concerned about the two-year-cohabitation requirement.
While Kamateros clearly sees the decision as a significant step in the right direction, she believes that much more needs to be done to protect women in such precarious situations.
“A woman who is being sponsored needs to be part of the sponsorship process before, during, and after the assessment,” she says. “She needs to be informed of her rights, in her language, before coming here, immigration agents need to be better trained to screen for and detect conjugal violence, and she needs to know what specific recourse she has if she’s being mistreated.”
Navigating a new country and a complex immigration system can be daunting under the best of circumstances, so one can only imagine the stress and uncertainty created when language barriers and psychological manipulation from an abusive spouse are added to the mix.
The elimination of conditional permanent residence is a small, yet significant, step towards making a highly vulnerable group of people a little safer.