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Cruel and Unusual: the Conservatives’ many-sided assault on refugee and migrant health

Prime Minister Harper has mused that his legacy could be linked to his work with the immigrations file.

Last week we saw Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander unveiled his government’s newest racist rhetoric with the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.” Now this isn’t the first time the Conservative government has appealed to xenophobic dog whistle politics for votes, but it is a part of an increasing attempt to use immigrant communities as scapegoats for tactless political gain. Despite there already being laws in place to deal with polygamy, this new bill would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to make permanent and temporary residents deportable if they practice polygamy in Canada. This bill is just another flank in the cruel and unusual treatment of immigrants and refugees in Canada.

This is not to say that Canada’s immigration system has ever been ideal or humane (from the head tax on Chinese immigrants to ‘none is too many’ [among many examples]), but this increase in unashamed racist rhetoric from the government is alarming. By creating resentment in the Canadian population to the ‘dangerous stranger in our midst’, the Conservatives are maliciously denigrating a large class of people who come here as refugees for cheap political gain despite the very real and negative impact on these communities.

Yet, as a country we have also crafted a false narrative and selective history suggesting that we have welcomed persecuted persons and immigrants with open arms. A federal government website, “A History of Refuge,” showcases centuries of asylum-seekers, from Quakers to Rwandans, and Canada’s Nansen Refugee Award in 1986, in contrast to the actual state of refugee and immigrant politics today.

The reality is that many articles continue to point out how Canada (under the current and former governments), “detains people indefinitely in jails on no charge – often with limited access to family, legal counsel and third-party monitoring agencies. And the 220-odd people in immigrant detention in Ontario jails lack even the most basic check on their wellbeing: The Canadian Red Cross has been prevented from ensuring their detention’s in line with international norms and human rights.”

The cruel and unusual treatment of refugees and migrants in Canada has hit a new high water mark under this Conservative government. Trying to understand what the conservative government is doing with immigration is a mind boggling affair. But, it has been highlighted that, “Canada currently accepts more migrants under temporary permits than those who can immigrate permanently. Permanent residency for refugees, skilled workers and family members is restricted, citizenship is becoming harder to get and easier to lose, but the migrant worker program is exploding. These changes are drastic. The number of family-class immigrants dropped by 10,000 in the first four years the Conservative Party of Canada formed government,” and further, “thirty years ago, family-class immigrants made up the majority of all immigrants. Today, they account for less than 20 per cent of the total intake.”

If we want to talk about barbaric cultural practices maybe a good starting point is the fact that, “The number of accepted refugees has dropped by 25 per cent. Between 2006 and 2011, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), tasked with immigration enforcement, carried out 83,382 deportations. Over the past ten years there has been an average of 11,000 migrant detentions per year, including up to 807 children detained each year behind razor-wire fences and barred windows. Migrant detainees spent a total of 183,928 days (that’s over 503 years) in immigration detention last year simply for administrative offenses. Some are incarcerated indefinitely.”

This government has also gone so far as to offer cash or plane tickets to refugee claimants worried about being incarcerated indefinitely on no charges as long as they don’t exercise their right of appeal.  In the last two years alone, Canada has paid more than 3,600 people thousands of dollars to leave the country (totaling $7.5 million).

The cavalier changes that have occurred under the Harper government are a part of a predacious and malicious ideology that is grounded in xenophobia and intolerance. Yet beyond spouting these myths, what the Harper government is doing is having very real and damaging impacts on the lives of those who are most vulnerable.

We hear the myth again and again that our system is overburdened by ‘bogus’ refugee claimants, as opposed to ‘real’ refugees.  This is the false dichotomy which is paraded by the Conservatives whenever a question of refugees and immigration comes up. Despite this premise itself actually being bogus, this false dichotomy creates an erroneous but convenient scapegoat in the form of “the foreign freeloader”. By dehumanizing refugee claimants and raising the spectre of cheat in our midst, this strategy is designed to shift the conversation from the real impacts of the government’s decisions on these people.  It also creates and legitimizes a space for discreet racism to enter our conversations; i.e. to summarize what is often said in comment sections of many articles:  ‘these people just want to use our system and our country, I’m sure there are some real ones of them and my heart breaks for them, but a lot of them don’t represent Canadian values and should be shipped home.’ This narrative is of course untrue.  

As a recent article pointed out, “The justification for the change was that there were large numbers of ‘bogus’ claimants who were milking the system to get free services. Without saying so in as many words, Ottawa was taking aim at Roma refugees (who are sometimes referred to derisively as “gypsies”) … slashing health benefits was never a sensible solution to those problems. The notion that large numbers of people were fleeing their countries and coming to Canada for a few months of dental care and the like always beggared belief.”  This is clear Antiziganism – hostility or prejudice against Roma people.

(graphic source here)


It is no surprise then that in the face of last week’s Federal Court of Appeal decision, which reaffirmed that the federal government was unconstitutional acting in a cruel and unusual manner – and that the government must restore the Interim Federal Health Program (IFH) for refugees – the Conservatives decided to play politics.

Chris Alexander announced that the ruling would be appealed and, in the meantime, the program would be restored, but only partially and temporarily. As a recent article exclaimed, “Since when is a government allowed to partially respect a court order? How is this not contempt of court? The government has every right to appeal a court ruling but it should treat the institution with respect, not crass cynicism.”

In response to a pointed and heartfelt question by MP Andrew Cash, Minister Alexander took the rhetoric to the next level stating, “Does the member opposite have any respect either for Canadians or for the English language, because there is no case when refugees, those determined to be so by our independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) or by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] and then resettled in Canada, have failed to receive health care under this government, and refugees will continue to receive health care. What New Democrats are asking for, and we really find it unbelievable, is that people whose claims were found to be false, people whose claims were found to be fraudulent, people waiting to be removed from Canada, should receive better health care than Canadians themselves.”

It has been pointed out that, “What Alexander never admits is that his government has taken away health benefits for some 10,000 people who arrive annually and claim refugee status in Canada. These people have not even had their claims heard by the IRB, and yet the Minister tries to give the impression that their claims are “fraudulent”. As well, among those refugees who are “resettled” from United Nations camps, to whom Alexander points with pride, the government will not fund health care for those who are sponsored by church or community groups in Canada. These are the sort of “good” refugees the government claims it wants. Alexander boasts of the government’s record of taking in about 10 per cent of the total number of refugees from camps resettled worldwide.

And yet, the Harper government’s current refugee health policy leaves out these sponsored people, and dumps the responsibility on the sponsoring groups and the provinces.”  Further, “Refugee claimants must already demonstrate great need in order to qualify to receive social assistance so to deny help to these vulnerable refugees is to cruelly deny the lifeline that allows them to survive.” With regard to the claim that refugees get better health care than Canadians, government statistics show this is completely false (500 and $600 per refugee annually, while the cost of health care for the average Canadian was over $5,000 per year).

So beyond bizarrely named bills, a cruel immigration system, and propagating xenophobic rhetoric, have the cuts to IHF been reinstated? No. What we have now is a partial reprieve (despite the courts ruling) and an even more unnecessarily complex system.  Now there is a two-tier system for refugee claimants with varying levels of health services provided and very little accountability actually determining the ‘legitimacy’ of a refugee claim.

As far as I can tell there is now: full health benefits for refugees that are government sponsored, but not for rejected claimants or those who are immediately deportable (except if they are from a moratorium country); only children are entitled to dental and vision care; medication coverage for children under 19 or pregnant women, but not for refugee claimants unless they carry a public health concern; and some men and women are entitled to health services only if they have a condition that is a threat to the public (that means not even basic physician and hospital care).

Confused yet?  What this represents is not restoring levels to the pre-2012 cuts, but rather a heavily lawyered up attempt to do the bare minimum the Conservative government can get away with without immediately being held in contempt of court. As a recent article stated, “When you’ve fled a country, usually because of war or persecution, you’re poor, and you don’t speak the language, and then you fall ill, how are you supposed to navigate this sort of ponderous, politically-motivated bureaucracy?”

This is simply mean spirited. For example, most pre-hearing refugee claimants cannot get insulin, antibiotics, out-patient chemo, or asthma medication unless they are able to pay.  Further, most rejected claimants will still not be covered to see a doctor or go to the hospital if they are having a heart issues. 

This brings us back to the article from last week about how the Harper government is using the omnibus budget bill to deny health and social assistance to refugees. Yet another flank in the cruel and unusual treatment of refugee claimants.

The federal government is now claiming the idea to restrict refugee’s access to health and social assistance (smuggled into the omnibus budgetary bill C-43) came from the Ontario government. For their part, Ontario government is strongly denying Ottawa’s claim. Judging by the quick and strong response it is fair to say the provinces were not asking for these changes, the Conservative government is simply trying shift conversation and deflect the blame as they ram through this bill.

Not only would a private members’ bill (which garner less debate and scrutiny) be a poor place for something as substantial as C-585 (the initial bill to restrict social assistance to refugees), but it will receive even less oversight now that it is part of the budget bill C-43 (sections 172/173 of the bill). In a little over a week the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration will discuss and review the section (on November 19th), but it will not be reported to the house.  It will also be discussed at the Finance Standing Committee for a hearing (on November 17/18th).  From this point it will be included in the final budget presented to the House of Commons for a final vote without any real debate or substantive oversight as soon as the end of the month.

There is currently a petition to Finance Minister Joe Oliver, among others, urging the federal government to Stop the Budget Bill from Denying Refugee Claimants Social Assistance. Please take a moment to sign it and share it with your friends and family.

The attack against refugees and migrants to Canada is designed to hit these communities where they are most vulnerable, their health. It comes from this government in many fronts, but the results always have a real and dangerous impact on those who are most defenceless in our system. It is heartbreaking that cheap political games and xenophobic rhetoric for votes are now more valued than caring for those who have fled their countries and are in need.  Let’s talk to our friends, families, and neighbours and demand that this #cruelandunusual punishment stop immediately.


For more background information see:

Harper’s Canada: using omnibus budget bills to deny health & social assistance to refugees

Previous Articles on IHF Cuts