Invisible women, concrete barriers

Refugee women in Nova Scotia
November 20, 2008

Imagine that your child has a broken arm and you have to wait two weeks to seek medical treatment. Imagine giving birth at the IWK and not having access to immediate medical insurance coverage for your baby, who is a Canadian citizen.

Imagine being told you have to pay $330 to see a physician to get a prescription for asthma medication - and have to pay the cost of that medication. Imagine being separated from your children for two years or more, or being told you would have to pay $10,000 for one year of public high school?

These are some of the experiences shared at a recent roundtable on issues facing refugee women, the second of which is to be held tomorrow, World Refugee Day. These stories reflect a broad reality for asylum refugees in our province; while their application for refugee status is being processed, they live within our communities without status, facing many gaps in services and programs.

Refugees can be in limbo as claimants for at least a year, and are more likely to be waiting two to three years for a decision which can either be in their favour or result in deportation.

These asylum seekers arrive in Nova Scotia often with nothing more than $10 in their pocket, and ask to be allowed to stay due to threats of persecution in their own country. Many have been traumatized and need help. Instead, they are faced with barriers that seem impossible to surmount, and are often invisible to those in government and in our community who could offer help.

One woman who shared her story at the first roundtable came to Nova Scotia in 2004 as a single mother of a three- and a five-year-old. Fleeing an Eastern European country, she had no idea what she'd find here or whether she'd be allowed to stay. She spoke of the isolation she faced as she lived in poverty, tried to learn English and raise her children, while trying to learn about Canadian culture.

Another woman had to leave her six children behind when fleeing an East African country. When she arrived, as a refugee, to a Nova Scotia winter with no warm clothes, she was referred to a shelter, but had to stretch her social assistance cheque to cover her own clothes and food, as well as the expenses of her kids back home. Two years have passed and she is still trying to be reunited with her children.

The measure of a society's ability to take care of its citizens is by the health and welfare of its most vulnerable. Refugee women are among the most vulnerable in our country. Instead of providing sufficient services, we continue to bicker about which level of government should cover which services and at what stage of the refugee process they should be entitled to them. Legal aid is not provincially funded in Nova Scotia and thus not accessible to all who need it. As for a baby born to a refugee claimant while in Canada, MSI does not extend coverage to the baby, although the federal government will eventually allow coverage once the claimant fills out all the appropriate forms, provides a picture of the baby and proves that the baby is without coverage. This means the baby - a Canadian citizen - could be without coverage for up to a month or more.

Refugee claimants have to wait too long to receive work permits; as a result, capable workers rely on social assistance while they wait for their permits. If they do receive status, refugees, like other immigrants and visible minorities, face discriminatory hiring practices, work conditions and pay. According to the last census, for each dollar received by their Canadian-born counterparts in 2005, recent immigrant men earned 63 cents and recent immigrant women received 56 cents. The economic disparities are only worsening - in 1980, both earned 85 cents for each dollar earned by their Canadian-born counterparts.

Canada is a wealthy country and enjoys a reputation as a welcoming place for refugees. But clearly, we still have a long way to go for refugee rights in Nova Scotia, and in Canada. While our government is processing their applications, we have an obligation to treat refugee claimants with dignity and to offer them access to the basic necessities that all Nova Scotians enjoy. It is the least we can do.

Christine Saulnier, PhD, is director, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia. A slightly edited version of this editorial appeared in The Chronicle-Herald - Halifax.