April 6, 2015


The Migrant Mothers Project (MMP) is a collaborative research project between the University of Toronto and a number of community groups to understand how Canadian immigration policies impact violence against women, particularly those who have precarious status.

At the outset the MMP sought to understand the challenges faced by women living with a precarious immigration status in Canada; many of whom are mothers who struggle to support their children or for whom migration has caused their families to be separated across two or more countries. The MMP also aims to document in what ways immigration policies produce gendered forms of inequality that can lead to greater exposure to interpersonal violence (i.e. from a partner or employer) or forms of structural violence (i.e. inadequate housing, food insecurity, and the daily fear of being deported). People with precarious status are defined by their lack of access to the “the rights and security of citizenship” (Bhuyan et al. 2014:11); these include the right to move freely in and out of Canada, the right to work legally and to change employers, the right to social services such as healthcare, and the right to not be dependent on a spouse or employer for immigration status. The precarious status population in Canada continues to grow, and includes temporary foreign workers, international students, sponsored spouses with conditional permanent residence, people on a visitor visa, people awaiting a decision on a refugee claim, and those who are non-status.

Since 2008, the Canadian government has implemented a number of legislative changes that has made the journey to permanent residency more challenging than ever before. At the same time, the government has slashed the budgets of settlement services and has pressured workers in this sector to refrain from assisting and advocating for members of the precarious population. Only those who are new permanent residents (for two years), convention refugees, refugee claimants who are approved to apply for PR, new Canadian citizens, and live-in-caregivers who are eligible to apply for permanent residence are eligible for federally funded settlement services. The implication of these government-issued changes is that it is more difficult than ever before for the precarious population to obtain PR status; without PR status, these individuals face increasing difficulties accessing much needed social services including health care, education, shelter, and legal representation.

Last year, the Migrant Mothers project published its first report, Unprotected, Unrecognized: Canadian Immigration Policy and Violence Against Women, 2008 – 2013. The report was co-authored by Rupaleem Bhuyan, Bethany Osborne, Sajedeh Zahraei and Sarah Tarshis and was written in collaboration with a network of community advisors. The GMRI recently had the opportunity to talk about with Rupaleem Bhuyan, Principal Investigator for the Migrant Mothers Research Project and Associate Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work about the Migrant Mothers Project.


The Migrant Mothers Project started out with my own research and personal interests. I moved to Canada from the United States in 2008 to take on a position at the University of Toronto. Seven or eight years prior to this move, I had been investigating immigration policy and how it creates different forms of inequality, particularly, how it intersects with gender-based or domestic violence. When I moved to Canada, I wanted to understand how service providers in Canada work with immigrants who are non-status and what forms of status were more precarious. The timing was ripe – at that time, there was growing consciousness from grassroots groups like No One Is Illegal who spearheaded Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Campaigns with the Toronto District Public School Boards and the Toronto Police Services, to advocate for the basic rights of non-status people in Canada.

At the outset of the Migrant Mothers Project, I worked with community-based service providers and legal advocates in Toronto, to understand how immigration policies where impacting their work with women who were seeking services and who had histories of violence. My area of professional and community organizing is at the intersection of immigrant rights and anti-violence against women organizing. This has provided me with a foundation to develop key research questions that speak to the anti-violence against women sector as well as immigrant rights groups. The key research questions were: Amongst the kinds of people service providers were seeing, what kinds of immigrant status do they have? How does immigration status impact how service providers can support someone who may be a victim of violence? For example, if a woman enters a domestic violence shelter, how do service providers find out what her status is – if she is a refugee claimant, if she is a sponsored spouse, or if she is non-status? How does that woman’s status influence whether she can get access to housing, get access to a job, and whether she feels safe calling the police?

I work collaboratively with advocates, settlement workers, lawyers, as well as people who are themselves in precarious conditions. When we say “we”, we are not all doing the same work, but we try to make decisions collaboratively. So, as I mentioned, the original part of the project was to understand the different immigration policies. We also spent time reaching out to women with precarious status, focusing on Spanish-speaking women from Mexico or Central America. We conducted about 25 interviews with this group to understand what led to their migration, what role violence plays in their migration, how they negotiate their immigration status, how they find what they need for themselves and their children.

I recently received a SSHRC Insight Grant with Anna Korteweg (University of Toronto, Sociology) and Lana Wells (University of Calgary, Social Work) as co-investigators. With this new funding, we recently launched a new study titled “How Conditional Settlement Impacts Immigrant Women“, to look at the gendered and radicalized effects immigration policy has on immigrants who enter Canada as sponsored spouses/partners or through the Caregiver temporary foreign worker program. We’ve also worked with research groups to leverage in-kind money, as well as small amounts for knowledge mobilization and community building. Although we are a research project, a lot of our activities are focused on community organizing and community building. For example, at the same time that we were doing interviews with undocumented migrant women, we were also working with community organizations to create a drop-in solidarity space for Spanish-speaking women who have a precarious status. The drop-in group focused on self-care and mutual aid and was co-facilitated by women who were refugees and/or living with a precarious status. Creating a space centered on solidarity was an important complement to our research activities.

Our solidarity work also led to the MMP digital story-telling project where women with precarious status and their allies produced short videos to illustrate the challenges they face with regard to Canadian immigration policies. The digital stories are available on our website, so who people come across this topic can see what we’re finding as researchers but also what people in the community are telling about their own lives.


With funding from my new grant, I am looking at two areas of policy – women who enter Canada as live-in caregivers and women who enter as sponsored spouses. Legislative changes are creating conditions that make it harder for people in these categories to become permanent residents. At the outset, we are just trying to get a handle on all the policy changes – and this has been difficult task. Since the Harper government has had the majority rule, they have been able to implement policy changes in immigration without parliamentary discussion. So, almost every two months – if not more often – there is a policy change.

You may or may not hear about it in the news; we try to put it out there. So, when the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act was introduced in the Senate in November 2014, I worked with many different community groups who are vocalizing opposition by using the media, by holding press conferences, and by organizing workshops to understand the implications of this policy. According to the government this act specifically cracks down on forced marriage and polygamy, which the government defines as “barbaric cultural practices” (Government of Canada 2014). Numerous grassroots groups across Canada who work with victims of forced marriage, however, have argued that this act will do little to support victims of violence and rather will create new measures to target racialized communities through criminalizing entire communities as well as barring immigrants from entering Canada who may be suspected of these so called “barbaric cultural practices”. At the same time, the federal government has offered no resources to support organizations that are working with victims of forced marriage.

So, in terms of methodology, on the policy level, we use interpretive discourse methods to analyze the rhetoric mobilized in records from parliamentary debates and bulletins related to this Act. We ask: How is the government framing the population that they are worried about? So, in this case, who is barbaric? How does the government then justify the criminalization of so-called ‘barbaric’ immigrants while also making it easier to criminalize and possibly deport these groups? For example, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practice introduced changes to Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), the Criminal Code, and the Marriage Act.

While the government purports that this Act cracks down on forced marriage, which is a really terrible form of family violence that needs to be addressed, In the initial press release and public statements made by Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, the Minister made several references to recent homicides where the victim was a young Muslim woman who was killed by members of her family. Linking the act to specific communities, along with the use of the term ‘barbaric culture’ in the Act title, frames some communities as inherently foreign and threatening to Canada. This policy makes the troubling argument that violence against women, and forced marriage in particular, is not a Canadian problem but rather a foreign problem that needs to be stopped at the border.

Another aspect of our methodology involves interviews with policy makers, lawyers, and service providers who work with immigrants in these precarious categories. The goal is to understand their perception of how these policies influence the lives of people they service. We also conduct observation or participant observation in spaces where people are trying to understand these policy changes. In the previous phases of the project, we organized knowledge exchange sessions with different regions including Windsor, Niagara, Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver. We shared our research knowledge on immigration policy changes and how they intersect with forms of violence. We invited local experts to share their experience. The sessions concluded with small group discussions, involving service providers and immigrant leaders, to explore emergent priorities. Knowledge exchange sessions are like workshops or focus groups, but they also an opportunity for dissemination.

In the future, we will be interviewing women who are sponsored spouses, especially those in the category of conditional permanent residents. Individuals granted this status must live with their sponsor in a conjugal relationship for two years. If the government suspects that a woman is not in a conjugal relationship, that person could lose her status. I mentioned earlier that Canadian immigration policy impacts violence against women. This is a classic example. Conditional permanent residence (CPR) places women with precarious status – who do not have “the rights and security of citizenship” (Bhuyan et al. 2014: 11) – under the control of their spouses, further tipping the balance of power in favour of the sponsor. In some cases, this policy has allowed domestic violence against women to perpetuate with impunity. For fear of deportation, the abused sponsored spouse may hesitate to report violence, which empowers the sponsor to continue his abusive behavior unchecked. But before we interview women in the sponsored spouse category, we want to make sure that we have a good sense of what is going on in their lives, so that conversation can be meaningful.

In the meantime, we will work with our community partners to create other forms of solidarity work to complement the research. A lot of times, research can seem extracting – taking away people’s stories – and they don’t necessarily know what happens to it. The Migrant Mothers Project always tries to take a participatory angle so that there is more mutual benefit in the process.


First, we heard from service providers across Ontario that they are overwhelmed by the rapidity of policy changes. People who work in front-line capacities are overwhelmed by the change in their jobs, change in the resources that they have access to, and change in migrant rights. This entire sector constantly has to learn and re-learn the policies governing the rights of people they service. Secondly, we found that there are more and more people who are vulnerable to being deported, as a direct result of the way the policy changes are occurring. For example, the omnibus crime bill that passed in 2012 makes it easier to deport permanent residents who have a criminal record. In the past, this category of deportees had to have been handed a sentence, if they were convicted, of up to two years; now, it’s six months. As you can imagine, a lot more crimes fall into that category, making permanent residents with a criminal record more vulnerable.

In the meantime, the government has begun to further restrict the rights of temporary foreign worker (TFW). The changes actually increase the vulnerability to exploitation and violence. Low skilled workers face abuse from their employers including being forced to work with minimal or no pay, being forced to live in substandard housing, being sold to different employers, and being subjected to physical and sexual harm. Despite these abuses, TFWs are hesitant to report violence to authorities or to seek help because they are ineligible for support through federally funded settlement services and because they fear deportation. Incidentally, the Canadian government has done little to hold employers accountable for their abusive actions and to ensure that TFWs work in a safe environment aside from introducing the Temporary Resident Permit (TRP), which “allows an individual to remain in Canada for up to 180, in order to testify against her trafficker/abuser” (Bhuyan et al. 2014:25). The situation for TFWs is becoming increasingly dire; as of April 1, 2015 the “four in, four out” rule will apply to the first wave of temporary foreign workers. Under this policy, individuals are allowed to work in Canada for up to four years, but they have to leave Canada for four years before they can apply for re-entry. What we’re finding is that a lot of folks are not going to be able to leave. In the meantime, the federal government has increased how much money they are going to spend on enforcement, anticipating that they are going to have to detain and deport more people.

Taken together, new conditions on sponsored spouses, changes to the omnibus crime bill, and further restrictions on temporary workers have created a sense of crisis among a lot of service providers working with immigrant communities. There’s also a climate where federally-funded organizations are prohibited from working with temporary or precarious or non-status immigrants, a stipulation making it difficult for women who are in abusive situations to gain access to help. Some service providers are afraid to share knowledge on how to help precarious migrants. Even when service providers are willing to help, they might not know where to refer that person without jeopardizing the person’s safety. Those are a few of our major findings in terms of the impact of the policy changes.


The Harper government, which has had majority control since 2011, passed a bill that allowed the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to make changes around categories of immigrants and the conditions imposed on them without going to parliament, and this has made it possible to introduce many changes quickly, and with little public notice. For example, the restriction on the sponsorship of parents and grandparents was introduced without any kind of public debate. Similarly, the two-year condition for sponsored spouses to remain married and in a conjugal relationship also didn’t have to go to parliament. Granted, under current majority government, passage of new legislation is assured. But without debate we have not had a public record of opposing views. We no longer have this process. And this is worrisome because we’re going to see a very different Canadian society where more and more people are going to be in this category of “precarious.” We already have up to a million people each year in this category within the system – mostly international students and temporary foreign workers. And this number excludes those who are undocumented. So, what does it mean as a society when we have a big chunk of people who don’t have the same rights?


We try to break down our recommendations into changes that happen at the organizational, funder, and policy level. We encourage organizations to review their own practices so they can engage with people in what is called Access Without Fear. So, people can come to the organization and seek help, and not have the interaction lead to more fear or vulnerability that they will be reported to authorities. And organizations can be really mindful about why and how they collect information. One of our partner organizations is a drop-in centre intended for people who are homeless or under-housed, offering programming, food, and a warm place. They don’t collect any names, but their funder would like them to collect names to measure how many people they are serving. But the act of asking someone to give their name can actually create fear and discourage people from engaging, even if they are subjected to legitimate abuse. So, that organization is fighting hard to find other ways of reporting how many people they are serving without disclosing identities.

We also recommend that funders review their policies so that people who are more vulnerable are not being left out. For example, under the new immigration policies, the government considers temporary foreign workers and international students future permanent residents. But these people don’t qualify for settlement services until they actually become permanent residents. This creates a challenge – If you are university or a temporary foreign worker, you probably want some support with housing, with understanding your immigration options, and with other aspects of your life. But a lot of organizations aren’t funded to support people in that space, because the federal government assumes that they can support themselves. If we are going to have this social ethic of supporting people, especially through their transition, and of inviting them to become permanent residents, we need funding to support that as well.

We also have recommendations at the policy level. We need to have policies that don’t create more vulnerability. Before the government implemented the category of conditional permanent residence, grassroots organizations, women’s organizations, and legal organizations put together many statements demonstrating how this is going to make people who are in abusive relationships more vulnerable to abuse. Like I mentioned earlier, it adds fuel to the power dynamics that allow the abuser to control someone. And even though the federal government instituted an exemption from the condition to people who can show that they are being abused, the documentation and process that is required to gain exemption is very onerous; people are uncertain how to use it and it places the onus solely on the abused person to demonstrate evidence of abuse. Accepted evidence must include court documents, photos of injuries, letter from service provider/doctor, affidavit from a friend or family member, and a sworn statement (Bhuyan et al. 2014). This extensive array of documents is difficult to gather, especially as women are legally bound to their abusers, and additionally, may face other challenges including language barriers, lack of family and community support, fear of losing custody of children, and fear of deportation. The CIC reports that in the first year and a half, only 12 people out of the 70,000 who are receiving conditional permanent residence even applied. In Toronto alone, I know an organization with two dozen people who need that exemption. I imagine there are dozens and dozens of people who need to get out of an abusive relationship but they are stuck because of this policy. I think removing the condition is an obvious choice.


Under the current political climate, I don’t think that our research and our policy recommendations are going to be taken up. The Conservative government has their own policy agenda and the information we are providing is probably not going to influence them, at least not now. Some of my colleagues who are voicing very similar concerns in Ottawa are not being heard. But I do think we are making an impact at the grassroots level and amongst service providers. I think more people need to be aware of these policy changes. When I meet with my Social Work students, many are not aware of the number of temporary foreign workers, international students, and undocumented migrants in this country. This is not surprising because, frankly, they do not see these groups in the places they are paid to do social work. So, we are trying to raise consciousness about growing inequality, and how it intersects with poverty, with racism, with gender inequality, with sexual orientation, and with ability. Immigration status is something I want more people to be familiar with, particularly in respect to how it organizes their own work. So, a lot of our successes have involved collaborating with service providers and organizations to understand how immigration status is shaping how they respond to people and who they see as deserving of help. That’s where we’re probably making the biggest impact.


I think the hardest part is developing trusting relationships with people who are in vulnerable situations so that they can express their concerns. For example, temporary foreign workers who are housed by their employers are not likely going to disclose what is going on because they are so worried. So, I think we need more resources to connect these groups with services and to document the conditions of their lives, which may include workplace violations, human rights violations, and everyday hardships. I think we need a lot more attention to these areas.


Bhuyan, R., B. Osborne, S. Zahraei, S. Tarshis. 2014. Unprotected, Unrecognized: Canadian Immigration Policy and Violence Against Women, 2008 – 2013. Toronto: Migrant Mothers Project.
Government of Canada. 2014. “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act: An Overview.” Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=900339).