06/18/2014 12:34 EDT | Updated 08/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada's Refugee Health Cuts Are a Symptom of a Larger Disease

Rafe Swan via Getty Images

On Monday, June 16, 2014, thousands of health care providers, social service providers, immigrants, refugees and allies across Canada demonstrated against the Conservative government's cuts to the refugee health program. It is these cuts that led me to treat a pregnant woman in a volunteer-run clinic after she was turned away from another doctor and asked to pay thousands of dollars up front.

The refugee health cuts must be reversed, but we must also look at the underlying disease of which these cuts are a symptom. The refugee health cuts are but one more policy decision in an increasingly regressive immigration system, and refugees are just one more group being denied health care because of their immigration status.

The Harper government has increasingly attacked the security of immigration status in Canada. We are now deporting permanent residents who may have lived here most of their lives if convicted of minor crimes. We are even talking about revoking citizenship, something the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration wants to be able to do without so much as a hearing.

The government is also increasing the hurdles to becoming a citizen. Bill C-24 has just passed second reading and created an uproar in the legal community. It requires a longer stay before citizenship can be applied for, removes the right to appeal a negative decision and triples the application fee. We are implementing harsher language requirements, no longer permitting interpreters to be used, and are increasingly forcing older adults to go through this process.

While we make citizenship and permanent residency more precarious, we also set up barriers for those deemed economically less valuable -- refugees, parents, grandparents, spouses. A two-year ban on sponsoring parents and grandparents was placed and upon lifting it recently, income eligibility requirements were increased by 30 per cent so now a family of four can only sponsor a parent if they make over $90,000. Spouses that have been sponsored to come to Canada are now required to stay in the relationship for at least two years with threat of having their permanent residency revoked, which can be disastrous for women living in abusive situations.

Bill C-31, which even caused the UN Refugee Agency to send our government a brief outlining their concerns, now requires all refugee claimants to have a hearing within 60 days. This timeline has left lawyers and claimants scrambling to gather evidence, and often expects people who have experienced severe trauma to disclose this before they are ready. It is no surprise, then, that in recent years we have had the lowest acceptance rates since the 1980s.

On top of this, there is research suggesting that refugee board members have wildly variable acceptance rates meaning the determination process can be highly unpredictable. Likely due to all these changes, in 2013, our number of refugee claims dropped to half while the numbers in the U.S. and other high-income countries grew. This means that the numbers of vulnerable people in the world seeking asylum continues to grow, but those people are simply choosing not to come here where they can see they are not welcome.

On one end we are denying entry to parents, grandparents and refugee claimants and trying to revoke status from those who have it. On the other end, we are flooding Canada with a mass increase in temporary workers, who are often paid less, exploited through loopholes in labour laws, and shipped home without a path to citizenship. Within this context where migrants are seen more as labour, and not people deserving of citizenship rights, the refugee health cuts make perfect sense. They are a deterrent to a vulnerable population forcing them to migrate elsewhere.

The refugee health cuts garnered much attention because people needing healthcare are being denied it in a country that prides itself on a universal healthcare system. But the fact is that before this policy was instituted, half a million people in Canada already had no health coverage. This includes new immigrants undergoing a three-month waiting period in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, as well as undocumented people throughout Canada, both of whom have no coverage, even in the case of an emergency, requiring clinics like the Scarborough Volunteer Clinic for the Uninsured to have existed for the past 14 years.

I am proud of the health sector which has so powerfully mobilized around the country to show its disapproval of the denial of healthcare services to refugees and refugee claimants. As in health care, it is crucial to understand the underlying disease to know how best to treat the symptoms. We must continue the fight, and do so knowing that we are fighting not just one bad policy, but an increasingly regressive immigration system which keeps out some, and further marginalizes others. We must continue the fight, and call for not just health coverage for refugees but for health for all people in Canada, regardless of immigration status. In doing so, we can finally build a society we can be proud of.


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