Ottawa Citizen

Monday July 12, 1999

Women's refugee program faces axe

Controversial replacement plan would include men

Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen

The federal government is preparing to phase out a controversial women-only refugee crisis program and replace it with a new plan that would also include men.

Women At Risk, an 11-year-old emergency program to get women to Canada within 72 hours if they are deemed to be in physical danger, is being challenged at the Canadian Human Rights Commission on the grounds that it discriminates against men. The challenge, by two western academics, is supported by the Reform party.

In a letter to the commission last month, Reform immigration critic Leon Benoit accused the Women at Risk program of representing "a serious violation of human rights."

"As recent events in Kosovo illustrate painfully," he said, "it is men who are most likely to be interned, tortured, forced into battle against their will, or killed for no other reason than their sex. Treatment of refugees should be decided on the basis of individual need, not on stereotypes or feminist ideology."

But the federal Citizenship and Immigration department says the Women at Risk program isn't working properly and is preparing a plan it calls the Urgent Protection Pilot. The plan, expected to be in place by October, will give Canadian officials the right to issue minister's permits at refugee camps or in a refugee's country of origin.

Citizenship and Immigration spokesman Peter Lamey said although the Women at Risk program aims to get women to Canada within 72 hours, it can take longer.

"The Urgent Protection Pilot will expedite the process so that people -- not just women -- can come to the country on a minister's permit ... and have the paperwork processed on the Canadian side."

Mr. Lamey said Women at Risk, initiated among several countries by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has brought 1,200 women and children to Canada since 1988, but paperwork has often delayed the process.

Their countries of origin include Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Yugoslavia and Iraq.

Mr. Lamey said the new permit system would be similar to the one used last month to bring Kosovars to Canada.

Canadian Council of Refugees spokeswoman Sharryn Aiken said a woman-specific refugee program is still necessary, because women are often denied access to the systems that determine refugee status.

"There are women languishing in refugee camps at great risk," she said. "Ever since its inception, the program has brought in a paltry, almost embarrassingly low, number of women. It's a good program, but has failed in reaching even minimum expectations.

"It's generally known internationally," she added, "that if there is a case of really serious, urgent risk, you don't go to Canada, because Canada takes too long."

Ms. Aiken dismissed the Human Rights Commission challenge by Mr. Benoit and academics Ferrel Christensen of the University of Alberta and Adam Jones of the University of British Columbia.

"Men already have an opportunity for resettlement," she said. "There are four main visa posts in all of Africa that process refugee resettlement. For the vast majority of female refugees, with children, access to those visa posts exists in theory, but not in practice. The people who get there are single men."

Last year, 9,650 refugees were allowed into Canada -- 47 per cent were female, 53 per cent male.

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen