Gender and Refugee Integration in Canada

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“When we group all refugees and migrants together indiscriminately, we miss out on vital information, we fail to address the specific needs of vulnerable groups.”

Jenny Birchall, UNICEF

It is important to recognize that refugees, as a group, face barriers that others do not. And yet recognizing how certain refugee groups experience integration can be useful in identifying more effective policies. Evidence has repeatedly shown that gender is a particularly important way of understanding refugee experiences.

EU, UNICEF, and scholarly reports have all pointed to significant differences in the ways different genders integrate. They find that women refugees often have a more difficult time securing employment, lack adequate access to important health services, and face a double discrimination effect of being minorities and women. Similar data is found among refugees in Canada, with reports showing consistently lower employment rates for refugee women. Additionally, refugees who are mothers experience increased responsibilities in earning income combined, at times, with cultural expectations of being the primary child-care providers.

Men face their own challenges relating to underemployment. This impacts their satisfaction with life upon arrival and mental health. Evidence has also pointed to men having a more difficult time adjusting to acculturation of their children than women do, which can have an impact on family relations.

Canadian Policy

Canadian policy and discourse around refugee integration and gender equality are generally progressive. But it is important to continue to apply a critical lens and identify the less overt barriers that different groups face.

The current federal government has begun to implement initiatives to combat gender inequality, many of which will impact refugees in positive ways. The government acknowledged the importance of Gender-Based Analysis (GBA), which seeks to analyze the potential impacts of policies on the different genders. The 2018 Federal Budget was the first to have reportedly gone through a GBA in entirety. This is welcomed news, as the new budget has broad policy and funding implications for all women, as well as a some targeted at refugees specifically:

  • $31.9 million over three years in support of a pilot project to provide additional settlement supports to visible minority newcomer women and reduce barriers to employment.
  • $20.3 million over five years, beginning in 2018-19, to resettle 1,000 vulnerable women and girls as Government-Assisted Refugees.
  • An effort to analyze the impacts of policies through gender as well as other demographic groups, known as “GBA+,” aimed at identifying groups that experience multiple levels of discrimination and inequality, such as minorities and refugees.
  • The promotion of Status of Women Canada to an official federal department. Among its mandates, the department aims to work on removing barriers to employment for minority and newcomer women.
  • $6.7 million over five years allocated to Statistics Canada to create Center for Gender, Diversity, and Inclusion Statistics.
  • Employment Insurance changes that will promote shared parenting responsibilities and improved work opportunities for women. Further expansion of the Child Care Benefit.


Given that some of the main barriers to successful integration for refugee women include employment and child care, these initiatives should improve their opportunities and help with the process of integration overall. These commitments are long-term solutions and require close monitoring and additional consideration in order to succeed. But there are three key policy areas that would further benefit refugees from a gender-based perspective:

  • Affordable housing: The government has made a commitment to additional rental developments and allocated funding for community housing. But these supports need to be extended. Affordable housing in big cities is particularly important for newcomers as they require access to services that are more readily available in cities. With lower employment rates, attendance in language classes, and a need for increased access to culturally sensitive healthcare, these services are especially important to women.
  • Mental Health: Studies have repeatedly shown that refugees suffer higher levels of stress and mental health issues than other groups. Stress can come from a difficulty of securing employment and finding affordable housing, but also relates to the acculturation process and past trauma. We need to make sure counselling services are available and accessible, with a focus on the different triggers for different genders.
  • Continued commitment to GBA: The government needs to ensure that GBA budgets are put into legislation as promised. This is an important step that can have long-term social and economic impacts on all Canadians, including refugees.

Looking at the diverse experiences of refugees from a gendered perspective is not only a women’s issue. This analysis deserves our attention and continued support not only because women are unfairly and disproportionately affected, but also because gender-based analysis and targeted policy can have a positive impact on the integration process of all refugee groups. The variety of government commitments outlined in Federal Budgets 2017 and 2018 should have a significant impact on refugee integration moving forward.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Todd Van Hoosear

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