Women are at risk in Iran: Will Canada step up? | Maureen Silcoff

Maureen Silcoff

Mahsa Amini, prohibited from using her Kurdish name Zhina, died in Iranian police custody on Sept. 16, 2022, after the morality police arrested her for improperly wearing a hijab.

Protests erupted in Iran and worldwide over her death and the underlying lack of human rights for women. Human Rights Watch called for abolishment of “the compulsory hijab law” and that Iran “remove or reform other laws that deprive women of their autonomy and rights” as way to eliminate “discrimination, violence, and death that half of Iranian society endures from a repressive and unaccountable state.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced several new measures against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Oct. 7. They include a decision to invoke s. 35(1)(b) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) against possibly over 10,000 members of the IRGC for terrorism, systemic or gross human rights violations, genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. Such a designation would render leaders, officers and senior members of the Iranian regime inadmissible to Canada.

The measures also involve financial sanctions against the IRGC including moving “more quickly to freeze and seize sanctioned individuals’ assets” which Budget 2022 had made possible, and using the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act to enable “restrictive financial and property measures for foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of human rights.”

But the announcement was bereft of any assistance for women and others who are the target of such violations.

If an Iranian national can make their way to Canada, they can institute a claim for refugee protection upon or after arrival. The claim will be determined by a member of the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board, a tribunal with expertise in refugee law and with access to current human rights evidence on Iran. The tribunal may determine refugee claims on paper, i.e. without an oral hearing, and can expedite this process so that claimants can obtain a decision in short order and quickly apply for permanent residence, which in turn would allow them to bring dependents who remain in Iran to Canada.

For Iranian nationals in Canada, Canada Border Services Agency also has the authority to temporarily stop deportations to Iran by adding Iran to a list of Administrative Deferral of Removals.

However, arriving in Canada means overcoming barriers that are often insurmountable. Iranians must apply for a visitor visa through the Canadian office in Ankara, Turkey, and satisfy an immigration officer that they intend to return to Iran.

If a person manages to obtain a U.S. visa but not a Canadian one, arriving at the Canada-U.S. land border could pose another barrier. Pursuant to the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, with a few limited exceptions, the person would be turned around back to the U.S, where they would likely face jail.

Refugee resettlement is equally inaccessible for many people. It involves a lengthy process, with specific criteria such as being outside the country of origin, and depending on the program, requiring a referral by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Canada has a Women at Risk refugee resettlement program, which also requires a UNHCR referral.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser can implement measures to alleviate these barriers. He can waive the need for such a referral, as was done for Syrians seeking refugee resettlement and as he recently announced for some Afghan nationals.

Fraser can also expedite immigration applications, such as sponsorships and international student visas, that are already in the system.

Further options exist in the form of public policies pursuant to s. 25.2 of the IRPA and temporary resident permits pursuant to s. 24(1) of the IRPA which could provide Iranians with simplified pathways to come to and remain in Canada.

The government of Canada reacted swiftly to the crisis that developed in February 2022 in Ukraine when it created the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET) measures, which among other things, adjusted regular visa requirements to meet the moment.

But programs can be deficient, such as those developed for Afghan nationals in July 2021. Although Afghan women are clearly at risk — as the Taliban prevents them from going to school or playing sports — the programs in place have been underinclusive, slow and opaque.  

Canada’s commitment to protecting women’s fundamental human rights is once again in the spotlight. When women face harm for the simple act of dressing a certain way, and for protesting against injustices, are we satisfied with imposing sanctions on human rights perpetrators, or do women and others at similar risk deserve more?

Maureen Silcoff is a partner at Silcoff Shacter in Toronto and practises in the areas of refugee and immigration law. She was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board for five years and is the past president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to The Lawyer’s Daily, contact Analysis Editor Richard Skinulis at Richard.Skinulis@lexisnexis.ca or call (647) 776-6672.

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