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Doctors and lawyers fight for refugee health care

Cate Bester

March 5, 2013

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, along with three ill refugee claimants denied medical services, took the federal government to court in late February in response to decreased health care access for refugees.
In June 2012, cuts made to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) for those not covered by provincial or private health insurance revoked coverage for dental and vision care as well as prescription medications. Now anyone seeking asylum in Canada, including expectant mothers, children, and the chronically ill, are denied life-sustaining medication and preventative health care. In the case of people arriving from 27 countries that Immigration Officer Jason Kenney has deemed "safe," no medical services, not even vaccinations or insulin, are available unless a condition that poses a threat to public health is present, even if the claimant has a work visa and is paying taxes to the Canadian government.

The cuts are being challenged as unconstitutional according to the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Sections 7 and 12 which guarantee "the right to life, liberty, and security of the person" and freedom from "cruel and unusual treatment" have been violated as refusal of care may lead to further health complications and in some cases death. "Equal treatment before and under the law, and equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination," as stipulated in Section 15, has also been disregarded as claimants are being discriminated against depending on their country of origin as well as their immigration status. Canada's international legal obligations toward children and refugees are being compromised, especially as health issues these claimants face may be the result of the treatment they fled.

Meanwhile, the medical community and refugees are confused about what services are covered and for whom, so that even those that should be receiving treatment under the degraded IFHP are being denied necessary care.

The Immigration Minister claims that these cuts will save taxpayers $20 million a year. However, as withholding preventative and primary health care services now will cause the health of those denied to deteriorate unnecessarily in the long term, the cuts may ultimately carry a greater cost to provincial health insurance programs. The lack of any real financial justification for this mistreatment exposes that cuts are in fact arbitrary and unconstitutional, and more likely made as part of a larger effort to limit immigration in Canada.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care initially opposed the federal government's plans for drastic changes last May. Massive support, including participation by over 2000 health care workers in a National Day of Action, forced the federal government to make some revisions to their cuts, but the resulting coverage still remains insufficient to deal with the needs of this extremely vulnerable population. Doctors have been joined by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers in an unprecedented coalition against the federal government's oppressive policies. This supportive cooperation exemplifies our power to organize against austerity.

To learn more about their efforts and the struggles of individual patients, visit

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