By Jennifer Yang Staff Reporter
Every now and then you have to cuff them down/ They love you long and they love you strong/ Black up they eye, bruise up they knee/ Then they will love you eternallyHungary, China, Namibia, Colombia, Mexico. These are among the top 10 countries from which refugee claims to Canada are made.
lyrics from a classic Calypso song
But one of the world’s tiniest nations has started appearing on the list, a place many Canadians couldn’t find on a map: St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Last year, 710 Vincentians sought asylum in Canada, up from only 179 in 2001.
Over the past decade, it adds up to more than 4,500 refugee claimants — or 4.3 per cent of the tiny Caribbean archipelago’s population. Proportionally, it’s as if the entire populations of Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador were to flee Canada.
Last year, this “jewel of the Caribbean” ranked 8th in the world for refugee claims to Canada, surpassing India (population 1.2 billion) and Pakistan (population 187 million).
The population of St. Vincent and the Grenadines? An estimated 104,000.
The majority of Vincentians flocking to Canada are women. And it appears most are fleeing domestic violence.
“There is something very wrong in the relationship between men and women in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” wrote Canadian Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington in a 2009 ruling. “Year after year, woman after woman washes up on our shores seeking protection from abusive, violent husbands or boyfriends.”
It turns out the vacationer’s idyll, with its turquoise waters and verdant hills, is one of the world’s worst places to be a woman.
Over the last decade, more women have been murdered in St. Vincent than any other country in the nine-member Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.
In 2007, the island nation had the third-highest rate of reported rapes in the world, according to a UN report. Even Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has been twice accused of sexual assault, once by a policewoman and once by a Toronto lawyer. Both charges have since been withdrawn by the public prosecutor.
And then there’s domestic violence.
In August, Stephmnie Daniel was stabbed in the throat, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend. On Sept. 16, George (Chocolate) Franklyn was charged with gunning down his wife and their female neighbour, reportedly one week before the couple was to begin divorce proceedings.
And last month, a jealous boyfriend attacked Rosalie Roberts and her 25-year-old daughter with a machete before setting their home on fire and drinking poison.
Attacks like these have driven untold numbers of bruised women from St. Vincent’s white-sand shores. But of those who have recently sought asylum in Canada, only one in three have been successful.
“There are no political, religious or social conditions in St. Vincent that justify any Vincentian applying for refugee status,” says Steve Phillips, the country’s consul general in Canada.
Phillips contends shady immigration consultants have “duped” many Vincentians into making refugee claims. And those claiming domestic violence are running from financial difficulty, not fists, he says.
A beleaguered banana export industry and a 22 per cent unemployment rate have caused many Vincentians to leave. And word has spread that claiming domestic abuse is an easy ticket into Canada, Phillips says.
“The fact that . . . Vincentians are making refugee claims, (is) alarming and disgusting for us as a nation,” he says.But in 2008, Phillips wrote a letter to support the refugee claim of domestic abuse victim Leila Brown Trimmingham, who feared for her life in St. Vincent.
Phillips wrote that Trimmingham would require 24-hour protection and this could not be guaranteed given the police’s “limitations and challenges.”
For two other Vincentian women, Canada has been a hope for survival.
Faith, a 19-year-old who asked that her real name not be used, speaks softly, eyes downcast, as she recounts her story.
It began Oct. 7, 2006, her 14th birthday. The day of her first kiss from a girl. The day she was first raped.
Faith’s sole guardian was her adoptive grandfather. When he caught her kissing her friend, he beat her. Then he raped her. Then he left her with an ominous message: by the time I’m finished with you, you won’t be gay anymore.
After that, Faith was raped and beaten daily, sometimes by her grandfather’s friends.
When Faith reported the initial assault to police, “they told me that I should behave and stop being a ‘batty’ girl,” she says, using a Caribbean slang word for homosexuals.
At 17, Faith ran away.
Borrowing money from a friend, she flew to Canada, where no visa was required for a visit. She landed in Toronto in July 2010, filing her refugee papers soon after.
About a decade earlier, another woman had come through Pearson’s arrival gate looking to escape.
Keturah Cupid is a tremulous woman whose girlish braids are flecked with grey. Now 43, the pain of her childhood still causes her dark brown eyes to swim with tears.
The youngest of four, Cupid was beaten by her mother, brother and one of her sisters. She was often tied up like a “Thanksgiving turkey” and thrashed with everything from cable wires to broomsticks.
“I can’t count the times that I went to the police,” she says. “They just chase you away and say, ‘Go home and be a good girl.’”After Cupid escaped to Union Island, the southernmost of the Grenadines’ 32 islands, she began a relationship with a pastry chef.
He beat her, too.
Cupid came to Toronto, living illegally in Scarborough for three years. In 2001, someone told her about the Immigration and Refugee Act.
On a crisp afternoon, Faith works on her Grade 12 biology homework in a Keele St. and Eglinton Ave. apartment.
She was granted refugee status. Faith attends high school, listens to reggae, hangs out with friends. Some day, she will become a social worker to “help people like myself.”
Faith uses two words to describe her new life: “I’m free.”
But Cupid was deported to St. Vincent in July.
The refugee board believed her story, but concluded St. Vincent offered places to hide and adequate “state protection.”
Since 2006, more than 1,800 Vincentian women have applied for refugee status in Canada, although it is unclear how many were related to domestic violence.
Only 34 per cent of finalized claims have been accepted, according to Immigration and Refugee Board statistics. The global acceptance rate for refugees in Canada is between 37 and 47 per cent.
In 1993, Canada became the first country to implement refugee board guidelines on “gender-based persecution,” which includes domestic violence.
But according to Toronto immigration lawyer Marc Herman, the refugee board has been “bending over backwards” to deny domestic violence claims from St. Vincent, citing adequate state protection.
“Often they’ll find something, somewhere, to suggest that adequate state protection would be forthcoming,” Herman says. “And as a result the claims go down the toilet.”
Every nation is presumed to be able to protect its citizens, and refugee claimants must prove otherwise.
But Vincentian lawyer Nicole Sylvester says state protection in St. Vincent exists only on paper.
“Women do not feel sufficiently protected,” she says. “The reality is many of our police officers are guilty of committing domestic violence themselves.”Restraining orders are ineffective, women like Cupid and Faith say, because police will not enforce them.
And in a pint-sized country like St. Vincent, there is nowhere to hide, says Jeanie Ollivierre, public relations officer with the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Human Rights Association.
The country does not have a battered women’s shelter. Its first “crisis centre” has been on the books since 2004, yet the two-storey building remains empty.
Ollivierre sees as many as 50 women a week, all victims of domestic abuse. In some cases, the women are so threatened Ollivierre has paid out of pocket for them to flee to Canada.
Failed refugees in Canada can seek judicial reviews at the Federal Court, which can send cases back to the refugee board for redetermination.
Some federal judges have criticized refugee board members who have “ignored evidence of the unavailability of state protection” in St. Vincent and made “unreasonable” decisions in rejecting domestic violence claims.
“The court is supposed to show deference to (refugee board members) who allegedly have greater expertise in country conditions than the court itself,” Harrington wrote in the 2009 decision, in which he granted judicial review to a Vincentian abuse victim.
“However, there comes a time when it becomes obvious that deference should be earned.”In a 2010 ruling, Harrington spelled it out a little more clearly.
“I think the time has come where it is insufficient to simply say that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a democracy,” he wrote.On September 9, Cupid was attacked by her sister in Kingstown. She reported it to police but has yet to hear back. She avoids going to town now.
“It is a democracy where domestic violence runs rife.”
Cupid has been living in an unfinished home with no running water. Desperate, she has sought help from the police, government agencies — even the prime minister’s office. A counsellor at Marion House, a social services organization, sees her three times a week.
But even there, Cupid is met by those who are unsympathetic.
“I don’t think the situation is as bad as the persons claiming refugee status are making it out,” says acting director Barbara Matthews. “I really find it hard to accept that 4,500 women would find it so violent down here that they have to be running.”
In the Caribbean, violence has traditionally been viewed as a “normal part of the relationship dynamic,” says Dr. Peter Weller, a Trinidad-based clinical psychologist and advisor to a UN batterer’s intervention program.
But in recent years, a depressed economy has further upset the relationship between men and women, he says. Caribbean men are expected to provide for their families and that role is now being threatened by rampant unemployment, he says.
“Some men respond by becoming even more controlling, more dominant,” Weller explains. “Losing that identity, (they’re) choosing to exert their dominance and control over the most vulnerable.”
Although the problem is getting worse, lawyer Sylvester says many domestic abuse victims don’t go to the police because they lack confidence in the system.
In 2008, 36 rapes were reported to police but not a single case was filed with the court, according to family court statistics provided by the Human Rights Association.
“Between the commission of the offence and the hearing, something happens,” says Jonathan Nicholls, spokesman for the St. Vincent police.
“The perpetrator is able to get to them and persuade them not to go forward with the case. And that is completely out of the police’s hands.”Nicholls insists the 850-member police force has been trained to respond to domestic violence complaints. “Anyone who comes to the police with complaints, action will be taken.”
Cupid has given up on the police, though. She wants to return to Canada, the one place she has felt safe.
And, after holding on to it for so long, she is starting to give up hope.
“I want to live. And I don’t feel safe here,” she says, her eyes glistening with tears. “Where am I supposed to go?”