1 in 6 female asylum seekers fleeing gender-based persecution

A CBC News investigation reveals one in six female asylum seekers in Canada is fleeing persecution because she is a woman. Half of those women — like Deka and Khadija — say they were fleeing abusive partners or family members.

Deka and Khadija believe their husbands will kill them if they're sent back to Djibouti

Khadija (not her real name) says she fled from her husband in Djibouti because he was physically, emotionally and mentally abusing her. She has filed for refugee status in Canada and hopes her application will be accepted by the Immigration and Refugee Board. (Brett Purdy/CBC News)

Deka and Khadija still have scars on their faces and heads from the beatings they endured at the hands of their husbands in Djibouti — and it's why they hope Canada will allow them to stay here as refugees.

They're not alone. A CBC News investigation reveals one in six female asylum seekers in Canada is fleeing persecution because she is a woman — for reasons including forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Half of those women say they were fleeing abusive partners or family members.

"I've been in an abusive relationship for the last 10 years and I couldn't get any protection from my country. That's why I run with my son to come to Canada," says the 29-year-old woman CBC News is calling Deka to conceal her identity.

She still has three other children living with their father in Djibouti.

"My husband used to beat me all the time," adds her 35-year-old friend, who CBC is calling Khadija.

"He married another wife and he continued to abuse me, and when I couldn't take it anymore, that's when I left."

Deka and Khadija still have scars on their faces and heads from the beatings they endured at the hands of their husbands in Djibouti — and it's why they hope Canada will allow them to stay here as refugees. 1:48

Deka and Khadija met at the Emerson, Man., border crossing in April 2017 after walking across the Canada-U.S. border between ports of entry.

Statistics from the Canadian Border Services Agency show the RCMP intercepted 1,018 people who walked from the U.S. into Manitoba to file asylum claims in 2017. The total number of asylum seekers intercepted crossing into Canada last year was 20,593, with Quebec leading the provinces at 18,836.

Those numbers are not broken down by gender. However, CBC News has analyzed data obtained from the Immigration and Refugee Board through an access to information request.

One in six female asylum seekers in Canada is fleeing persecution because she is a woman. Half of these women said they were fleeing abusive partners or family members. (CBC News)

It found the board heard nearly 3,000 domestic violence-related refugee claims between 2013 and 2017. Slightly more than half of those claims — 58 per cent — were accepted.

That number includes 136 gender-related claims involving women from Djibouti. Of those, 113, or 83 per cent, were accepted.

Statistics show female asylum seekers were slightly more likely to have their claims accepted than males. However, women who cited gender persecution as a cause for their claim were less likely to have their claims accepted than people fleeing for political, religious or ethnic reasons.

Conditioned not to talk about abuse

Legal experts say one of the reasons is because they are traumatized and conditioned not to speak about their abuse.

"A lot of female refugee claimants are coming from countries where either there is a significant power imbalance between men and women, and/or it is often hand in hand with a lot of shame with speaking out about sexual violence — rape in particular," said Asiya Hirji, an immigration lawyer at Neighbourhood Legal Services in Toronto.

"There is a lot of women who I have dealt with and they simply can't speak about it, and they most certainly can't speak about it in front of men.… A primary issue is that a woman who fails to disclose the true extent of the victimization in her home country risks not be accepted as a refugee."

There were 136 gender-related claims involving women from Djibouti between 2013 and 2017. Of those, 113, or 83 per cent, were accepted. (CBC News )

There are countries where women as a group are targets of sexual assault and violence, so the challenge is convincing the refugee board member that a particular asylum seeker is legitimately in need of refugee protection, Hirji said.

"You need to make a claim either based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. So if a woman appears in front of a member who does not consider gender as a unique, particular social group, then the only recourse she has for protection is under Section 97 of the Refugee and Immigration Protection Act, which requires that the woman show she is personally targeted, that the violence against her is not generalized," she said.

"If you have a rape epidemic then it is very difficult to make the argument … that woman is being personally targeted. Half of the population is in fact being targeted."

'I suffered a lot'

Deka and Khadija say they were personally — and violently — targeted.

Deka says she was physically, mentally and emotionally abused by the wealthy husband her parents arranged for her to marry, against her will.

"I come from a very poor family and his family are very wealthy, and when he was getting married to me, he paid money to my parents," she said in Somali through a translator.

"He came from a family which was powerful in my country. So the first time he started abusing me, my family or I couldn't do anything about it. Throughout that abuse, I had four children and he hit me so many times, I have scars in my face and I suffered a lot."

Deka (not her real name) shows a photo of her sister, who was burned with hot water while trying to protect Deka from her husband. Deka, 29, is an asylum seeker in Manitoba and hopes eventually to bring three children and her sister to Canada. (Warren Kay/CBC News)

Her sister was also seriously burned with hot water while trying to protect Deka from her husband's anger. Deka breaks down in tears describing the attack that left her sister in hospital for four months.

"I was in the abusive relationship and I kind of accepted it, but what happened to my sister affects me to this day because she was burned because of me. She was trying to help me, she was trying to intervene and assist me, but then she ended up suffering."

Deka fled with her youngest son, originally travelling to the U.S. before crossing the border into Canada. But she worries every day about the three other children she left behind. She had taken them to her parents' home, but her husband came to get them when he found she had run away.

"I have nothing left in Djibouti. If I go there, I will lose my life," she said, twisting a tissue nervously between her hands.

'He's going to kill me'

Khadija has a similar story of abuse by the man she married after her first husband died and her in-laws moved their three children to the United States. Khadija had four more children, aged 7 to 15 years, with her second husband.

"He used to beat me a lot and I used to be like a maid in his house — clean and cook and on top of that he used to beat me. He was a police officer and one time he beat me with the back of the gun, and he hit my head. To this day I have bad head pains," she said through a translator, touching the back of her head gently.

Desperate, Khadija fled and tried to reunite with her now-grown children in the U.S., but they rejected her.

She's waiting to make her case before the refugee board but is terrified her asylum claim in Canada will be rejected, and she'll be returned to Djibouti.

"I am hoping to get protection here. If I am sent back to Djibouti, for me it's like a death sentence.… Because I escape from him, he's going to kill me," she said.

"I feel a sense of freedom from the time I crossed the border into Canada because I believe I'll get a fair hearing here."

Winnipeg immigration lawyer David H. Davis sees many cases of asylum seekers from African countries who are fleeing gender-based persecution and abuse. He says many of their refugee applications have been successful. (Warren Kay/CBC News)

Khadija and Deka's lawyer hopes Canadians will give them a chance to start over.

"Yes, many of these applicants walked across the border without going through the actual border crossing. Don't make a knee-jerk reaction and say, 'Not again,'" David H. Davis said.

"I want the public to clearly understand that many applicants have genuine, heart-wrenching stories to tell and we need to help them because we're basically the last resort they have."


  • Disclaimer and Methodology

This data in this story refers to refugee claimants, or individuals who have made a claim in Canada for refugee protection. It does not include government- or privately sponsored refugees.

The data refers to IRB decisions and not necessarily individuals. The Immigration and Refugee Board sometimes makes more than one decision for the same individual.

The country and cause of persecution refers to what a claimant initially tells an immigration or border services officer when they first make a claim. The information can change as a claim progresses through the system and those changes are not captured in this data.

Acceptance rates are calculated by dividing the number of positive claims by the total number of positive and negative claims. It does not include abandoned, withdrawn, or administrative claims, or cases in which the claimant died before the case could be decided.

There are many factors that impact a claim decision, according to Melissa Anderson, senior communications advisor for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 

Some of them include the claimants country of origin, their ethnicity and their grounds for need of protection. 

To see our full analysis and download the raw data, go here

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc

With files from Tara Carman and Kristin Annable