07/03/2012 08:23 EDT | Updated 08/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Let's Celebrate Canada Day by Punishing Refugees?

On June 18, the Toronto Board of Rabbis (TBR), wrote a powerful letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They asked the federal government to cancel its plans to cut basic medication for refugees. They also spoke out against the idea of designating specific countries as "safe," and therefore unlikely to produce valid refugee claimants. Under new rules to take effect on Canada Day, refugees from designated countries will no longer have access to even emergency health care, and will effectively lose the right to appeal the results of their refugee hearings.

Later in June, the Canadian Jewish News published an article about the letter, along with a response from federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. On behalf of Canada's more than 26,000 family physicians and refugee lawyers across the country, we'd like to take this opportunity to respond to Minister Kenney's comments.

As members of Canada's Jewish community, we'd also like to express our pride in Toronto's rabbis. As a community, Jewish Canadians do not want to see refugees denied health care. We also do not want to see the doors shut to refugees fleeing persecution and violence in countries like Hungary. Rabbis, you represented our community well, and we thank you.

*People from "Designated Countries" (DCOs) will not lose access to urgent, essential and emergency care until the DCO policy takes effect, which may be a matter of some months. In addition, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, people from DCO countries who made their refugee claims before June 30th will still receive the same coverage as most refugees even after the DCO policy comes into effect.

Dr. Sandy Buchman is President of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, which represents more than 26,000 family physicians nation-wide.

Maureen Silcoff is a refugee lawyer, member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. She represents many Roma clients fleeing violence in Hungary.

Dr. Sandy Buchman on Minister Kenney's statements around cuts to refugee health care:

Minister Kenney: "I've been in parliament for 15 years, and I don't recall ever receiving a letter from the Toronto Board of Rabbis suggesting Canadians' lives are jeopardized by not having public insurance for 'life-saving medications.' I find it peculiar they would choose to raise this concern for rejected asylum claimants or those with [fraudulent] claims."

Dr. Buchman: The federal government is cutting off basic medications for active refugee claimants under the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP). In addition, Canadian citizens have access to basic medications through various provincial social assistance and subsidy programs.

The College of Family Physicians and Surgeons has issued a formal statement on this issue. We oppose the federal government's decision to cancel supplemental health benefits for refugee claimants under the Interim Federal Health Program, and we call on the federal government to reverse this decision.

Minister Kenney: "I don't see anyone arguing that we have a moral, legal or humanitarian obligation to provide taxpayer-funded health insurance to people visiting Canada or illegal immigrants."

Dr. Buchman: The federal government never provided health care for visitors or people without legal status in Canada. They are cutting off basic medication, preventative health care -- and, in some cases, emergency care -- for people with active refugee claims.

Minister Kenney: In his interview, the Minister states that Hungarian asylum seekers come to Canada in part to get supplemental health benefits.

Dr. Buchman: Doctors are telling us that Roma people fleeing Hungary are arriving with diagnoses and prescriptions. In other words, they have access to health care in Hungary -- that's not why they're coming to Canada.

Minister Kenney: "Refugees coming from countries in the European Union, where they have universal health care coverage, will have to get their own health insurance..."

Dr. Buchman: Exactly. Roma refugees are not coming here for the health care.

Maureen Silcoff on Minister Kenney's statements around cuts to refugee health care:

Hungary is widely expected to be on the list of designated countries. Refugees from designated countries will lose their right to even emergency health care and will be effectively denied the right to appeal their refugee hearings.

Minister Kenney: The article states that, 'In April, Kenney said he believed many Roma claimants from Hungary were making false claims...'

Maureen Silcoff: Over the past three years, I have represented many Roma clients from Hungary. They are assaulted on the streets by neo-Nazis. They show me photographs of swastikas spray-painted on their homes along with death threats. They are kicked, shoved and beaten by skinheads on the buses. Molotov cocktails are thrown into their homes.

These types of incidents are corroborated by all major international human rights agencies, which have also documented that police do very little to protect Roma and are, in fact, themselves implicated in abuse. Recently, we have also heard about an upswing of anti-Semitic rhetoric and activities in Hungary. The government itself has espoused anti-Semitism. Hungary is simply not a safe country for minority groups.

Minister Kenney: "One cannot, nor does our new system propose, to reject claims from [designated countries] as this letter suggests."

Maureen Silcoff: Refugees from designated countries will have very little time to prepare for their hearings. In addition, they will effectively lose their right of appeal. Finally, by stating publicly, and often, that refugee claimants from Hungary and other designated countries are 'unqualified,' the Minister casts a chill over refugee claims from these countries.

It is also worth noting that the federal government's criteria for designating a country as 'safe' under Bill C-31 does not take into account human rights conditions. Canada is the only country in the world to establish 'safe countries' without factoring in their records on human rights.

Minister Kenney: The article states that, Kenney questioned rhetorically why Hungarian citizens seeking refuge from their state didn't take advantage of their "full mobility rights" within the European Unison.

Maureen Silcoff: People from EU countries can't make asylum claims in other EU countries. France is deporting Roma people. They can't simply go live where they want.

Minister Kenney: "Thousands of unqualified claimants consume massive resources..."

Maureen Silcoff: Roma refugee claimants from Hungary are not unqualified. There is a well-documented rise of fascism in Hungary. People are facing violence on a daily basis because of who they are.