Dec 18, 2014
Canada Failing International Community On Treatment Of Refugees
By: Bernie Farber
Canada is known for its global humanitarianism – from conceiving of peacekeeping to joining the fight to reduce the spread of HIV.
Yet our country’s record on refugees is more mixed.
After the First World War, Canada opposed the admission of refugees for fear they could not be deported. Jewish Canadians in particular will not forget the images of the ocean liner St. Louis being turned back from our shores on the brink of the Second World War.
A more mature and generous Canada began to emerge after that conflict, and we eventually became a safe and welcoming country for those vulnerable global citizens suffering under violence, famine, or persecution. In the years that followed we adopted policies for recognizing refugees that were more fair: in 1957 we extended necessary health care coverage to refugees; and on several occasions Canada assumed a leadership role in welcoming large numbers of people from countries undergoing traumatic humanitarian crises, including Hungary, Uganda, Vietnam, and Kosovo.
But the current federal Conservative government is turning its back on this modern, more responsible history, and reverting to a refugee policy driven by fear, spite, and the politics of division.
Consider: in 2012 the government radically altered Canada’s refugee determination system to make it more difficult for many refugee claimants to prove their claims, and specifically discriminates against refugees fleeing oppression, corruption, and persecution in certain countries (including Roma from Hungary and gays and lesbians in Mexico).
The Conservatives also slashed health coverage for refugees, including children and pregnant women.
In response, refugee advocacy groups have had to act, in order to both protect those fleeing persecution and looking for Canada as a safe harbour, as well as to re-establish Canada as a country of light, not darkness. Many people, from ordinary citizens to groups of lawyers, physicians, and settlement workers, began to raise the alarm about the Conservative government‘s approach to refugees.
One thing most of these groups have not been able to do however is meet with Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander. Requests to meet, both formally and informally, have been met with silence.
Meanwhile, the consequences of the government’s policies continue to be documented, and the evidence of their unjustness continues to accumulate.
Indeed, in the last several months alone, the government has exacerbated its attacks on refugees through new rules contained in its citizenship bill, while ignoring our international obligation to do more to help Syrian refugees.
Sadly, the federal government appears content to perpetuate falsehoods about who is a legitimate refugee, and launch vituperative attacks on the critics of its policies.
The world looks to Canada for leadership on how a country should treat the most vulnerable. The federal government should take some immediate steps to re-establish a fair and compassionate approach to refugee policy. It could begin with the following:
- Revisiting the so-called “safe” country list. The government is pre-judging the credibility of refugees and further reducing health services for those from countries it deems safe. As a matter of principle this is wrong. As a matter of policy it is dangerous. Countries with noted human rights abuses are on this list, including Hungary, in which the Harvard School of Public Health has asked the United Nations to investigate possible pre-genocide conditions. This is also a country where the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik Party received a fifth of the votes in the most recent national election.
- Abandoning the appeal of the Federal Court decision on refugee health. A few months ago, the Court ruled that the federal government’s cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) are “cruel and unusual” in the way they have restricted care for many refugees, including denying epidurals for women undergoing difficult births. The cuts have downloaded costs to cash-strapped hospitals and provincial governments, as refugees are forced to seek care in more expensive emergency rooms after being denied access to many forms of primary care. While interim coverage is in place due to a court order, the government recently went behind closed doors to retroactively abolish the original IFHP.
- Stepping up for Syrian refugees. The refugee crisis in Syria is among the worst such crises in decades. We have a history of acting in such crises and Canada should show the world we can be counted on. We have done far too little to date, and now, it seems as though the government wants to choose which refugees to accept based on their religion. Our government must never discriminate on the basis of religion, and must select refugees based on need.
As a relatively wealthy and peaceful country, Canada has a shared international responsibility to be a safe haven for refugees and treat them with fairness and compassion. The Conservative government should be less focused on rhetoric and more focused on this responsibility.