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The Conservative Assault on Refugees

Changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, which previously provided refugees with healthcare in line with programs available to Canadians on social assistance, have had a severe impact. For example, refugee Israel Sosa was left with a $32,000 bill after receiving treatment for advanced colon cancer at a Toronto hospital last year.

If there is one aspect of the federal Conservatives' program to reshape Canada that best encapsulates the values that inform their actions, it is the new, cold treatment refugees arriving at Canada's doorsteps are now facing.

Changes to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which previously provided refugees with healthcare in line with programs available to Canadians on social assistance, were announced in Budget 2012 and came into effect last June. Under the revised IFHP, all refugees (including children) lose access to medication coverage and vision and dental care. Moreover, all refugees arriving in Canada from one of some 35 countries deemed "safe" by the Conservatives lose all health coverage, including urgent care.

The impacts of these changes on refugees have been immediate and severe. Shortly after the new IFHP rules came into effect last summer, Garcia Rodriguez, a Toronto-area refugee fleeing persecution at the hands of Colombian paramilitaries, developed a chronic retinal detachment. He consulted an eye surgeon, Dr. David Wong, at a Toronto hospital, who told him that he would need a $10,000 operation in order to avoid going blind. Knowing his patient could not afford it, Dr. Wong made repeated appeals to Citizenship and Immigration Canada for an IFHP exemption, but they all went unheeded. In the end, the surgeon put the patient first and went ahead with the operation, opting to share the operation's cost between himself and the hospital.

There are many other examples, such as the case of Israel Sosa, a refugee who was left with a $32,000 bill after receiving treatment for advanced colon cancer at a Toronto hospital last year. Or the case of Maria Morales, who left Mexico to escape violence. Once in Canada, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer but then learned that her prescribed chemotherapy would not be covered by the IFHP.

As six Canadian health-care professionals who have volunteered with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) recently declared: "We never thought we would see this day ... We have gone from volunteering overseas with MSF to volunteering at home in Toronto clinics that offer free health care to refugees..."

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said that the changes to the IFHP will save the government about $20-million per year-- a dubious claim, given that refugee health care costs will likely end up getting absorbed elsewhere, as Rodrigues' example above illustrates. But even if we accept the $20-million figure, this sum is actually less than the $21-million in taxpayer money the Conservative spin machine spent on intensive Economic Action Plan advertising last year--a campaign that tries to manipulate Canadians into thinking the Conservatives are responsible stewards of the economy, even though the federal debt has increased by $150-billion since 2008. And never mind that the latest surveys show that most Canadians view those ads as wasteful propaganda; the real waste, according to Harper, is health care for refugees, which Canada is required to provide as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.

The Conservative assault on refugees does not stop, however, at the denial of healthcare. Bill C-31, which came into effect in June 2012, has been deemed unconstitutional by Amnesty International and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. It changes the process by which refugees' claims are processed, depriving them of the opportunity to tell their story, and extending vast and vaguely defined powers to the Minister for Public Safety.

Under the new rules, which will reportedly cost $34-million to implement, refugees will have just 15 days to find a lawyer who can produce a written statement that will explain their claim. As the former Chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Peter Showler, has written, this "is simply not enough time for someone who has just arrived in Canada, does not speak English or French, does not have a place to live, and knows nothing about Canada." But even if they meet this accelerated deadline and avoid early deportation, refugees then have as little as 30 days to round up all the evidence (including psychological and medical reports) and witnesses before a hearing is held to determine whether they should be deported.

Civil society groups warn, furthermore, that the Ministers of Citizenship and Immigration and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness now have "extensive powers to imprison refugee claimants, to deny refugees the ability to reunite with family members and to strip refugees of secure legal status," with little judicial oversight. For example, these powers allow the ministers to authorize separation of 16- and 17-year old children from their parents and detain them for a year, as well as detain any group of two or more arrivals for a year on the mere suspicion of "smuggling." These measures have been strongly criticized by Human Rights Watch for contravening the Refugee Convention and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which Canada has also signed.

All this is part of a broader pattern of Conservative abuse directed at vulnerable foreigners who come to Canada to seek a better life. It manifests itself in the now-halted temporary foreign worker laws that allowed foreigners to be hired for up to 15% less than the average going wage, and in the public dollars Minister Vic Toews is spending on the reality TV program showing Canada kicking refugees out of the country.

And regrettably, Canadians can no longer know beforehand if these new laws are congruent with the Canadian Constitution and international treaties, in light of Edgar Schmidt's whistleblowing allegations that the government is not testing proposed legislation for compliance with the Canadian Charter. (Since then, he has been suspended from his job as a public servant with Justice Canada.)

Canada has certainly previously had many regrettable chapters in its history when dealing with refugees, including the shameful "none is too many" approach towards fleeing European Jews in the 1930s and 40s. But the changes introduced by the Harper Conservatives are a profound step backwards that will inflict untold hardship on refugees living in Canada today, and likely result in many being forced back into persecution. We have undoubtedly opened a new regrettable chapter in our history.

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