Activist doctors and refugees in Canada will take to the streets in cities across the country Monday for their fourth National Day of Action — a rally demanding that asylum seekers be given access to free health care while waiting for the government to assess their refugee status.
Despite three years of protests, Canada’s “federal government has stuck to its efforts to deny health care to refugees,” Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, one of the rally organizers, said in a press release. “As predicted, many have suffered and continue to suffer as a result. There have been well documented cases of people being denied care including pregnant women and sick children.”
The demonstrations Monday are part of a longstanding fight doctors and refugee advocates have waged against Canada’s Conservative government since 2012, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration restricted certain refugees from qualifying for coverage under the Interim Federal Health program. The plan took away health care benefits for people seeking refuge in Canada if they were from a list of countries deemed safe.
Opponents of the change say it denies coverage to people who need it, based on arbitrary assumptions that do not reflect the situations of people at risk.
A July 2014 ruling by a Canadian federal judge found the practice to be “cruel and unusual” and ordered the government to reverse the policy and return care to those who had lost it. The government is appealing the ruling. But the advocates protesting Monday say that the system is broken nonetheless, and unjustly denies health coverage.
Michael Bossin, an immigration lawyer and professor at the University of Ottawa, said the judge, Anne MacTavish, found the government "applied the law in an unequal way and she found that the cuts constituted cruel and unusual treatment because the government had intentionally taken away health care from vulnerable people in order to stop them from coming to Canada and seeking asylum."
Bossin said he expects the federal appeals court to issue a decision in the fall, with the case likely to head to Canada's Supreme Court no matter what the judges decide. However, if the current Conservative government, in place since 2006, loses elections later this year, their successors could drop the appeal, he said.
The office of the Canadian Immigration and Citizenship did not specifically reply to questions about the healthcare law, but referred Al Jazeera to links on its website describing benefits available.
“There are people who don’t have access to health care and they’re falling through the cracks,” said Amy Casipullai, communications director for the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). “Because they’re not aware if they’re covered or not, there have been people going to emergency rooms and leaving with a big bill they can’t pay.”
The policy created a list of countries, Designated Countries of Origin, which the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada believes should not be producing refugees. The Harper plan denied coverage to people from countries that "do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection."
“Most Canadians recognize that there are places in the world where it is less likely for a person to be persecuted compared to other areas,” DCIC says on its website. The government’s argument for the DCO list is that it helps them make a priority of refugee claimants who are in real need.
The United States, Mexico, South Korea, Japan and most countries in Europe are on the DCO list. But there are still people from some of those countries, especially Roma in Europe, who face persecution, advocates say. Hungary, where Roma face widespread discrimination, is one of the countries on the list of DCOs.
According to a York University research paper published on the problems Roma have claiming refugee status in Canada, vulnerable Roma citizens in Hungarian“have also been confronted with mounting racist rhetoric and violence, all too often with the support of the Hungarian political leadership,” with dozens of documented “racist attacks, some of which resulted in deaths,” the paper explains.
In their detailed study of how Roma refugee claims were litigated by sometimes unfit counselors, the researchers found the claimants “encountered racist rhetoric that drew on stereotypes about Roma being fraudsters, beggars, and criminals, and which presented Hungarian Romani refugee claimants as ‘bogus’. These stereotypes have now been enshrined in Canada’s new refugee-determination process,” according to the York University study.