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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Harper's policy on vulnerable refugees is wildly inconsistent -- and cruel

| June 18, 2013
Harper's policy on vulnerable refugees is wildly inconsistent -- and cruel

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If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, the Harper government must be broad-minded indeed.

As the NDP's Don Davies pointed out in an op-ed the other day, Harper advocates free trade while raising tariffs.

On the Syrian conflict, the Prime Minister describes the prospect of intervention as a "grotesque dilemma" one day, then, a few days later, laces into the Syrian regime's close friend, Russia's Putin, using the kind of gratuitously aggressive and dismissive language other G-7 leaders generally eschew.

All the while, Harper has shown much greater reluctance to actually act on Syria than his more verbally reserved British, French and American colleagues.

You might call it the "speak loudly, but carry no stick" policy.

Even on the question of refugees from Syria, Harper's government is very stand-offish.

It argues that one can never know whether a putative refugee is genuine or is, in fact, some kind of Jihadist in sheep’s clothing.

Generosity toward those seeking refuge is extremely circumscribed

This 'not-in-my-back-yard' approach was evident during Question Period on Monday.

After the House had raked over the relationship to the Harper government of former Montreal City Councilor and Conservative candidate Saulie Zajdel, the questioning turned to Syria. The very MP whom Zajdel had come close to defeating in 2011 stood in his place and talked about the deteriorating human rights situation in that Middle East country.

Irwin Cotler quoted a United Nations report on the "death, destruction and devastation in Syria: 93,000 dead, 5,000 killed monthly, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed daily, 4.5 million displaced internally and 7,000 new refugees each day."

Cotler wanted to know if the Harper Government would "facilitate resettlement for Syrian refugees, join the Swiss-led initiative to bring war criminals to justice and, finally, affirm and implement the responsibility to protect doctrine."

The answer from former police chief and current Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino, was deliberately vague.

"Canada commends Syria's neighbours for their generosity in welcoming those seeking safety within their borders," Fantino said. Then he added, without being specific, that the Government remains "committed to saving lives and addressing the needs of those affected by the Syrian crisis both inside and outside of Syria."

Fantino pointedly did not say that Canada was willing to accept any of those refugees, because, in fact, the Harper government is very cool to the idea.

Again, the government is very deftly avoiding the dreaded hobgoblin of consistency.

Boycott meetings in Sri Lanka but stigmatize those who flee Sri Lanka?

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney boasts that Canada is very generous when it comes to refugees -- or, more precisely -- government-sponsored, resettled refugees.

The Immigration Ministry's website puts numbers on that generosity.

It says there are over 10 million refugees in the world (most in wretched refugee camps, which the web site fails to mention).

Of these, about 100,000 are resettled each year. By 2013, the Immigration Ministry says, "Canada will resettle up to 14,500 refugees and other vulnerable persons a year" [italics added].

This number, the Minister boasts, makes of Canada one of the leading refugee-resettlement countries in the world.

Canada is much less favourable, however, to refugees who arrive on these shores uninvited and unsponsored.

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are a case in point.

Not too long ago, the Prime Minister decided to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka because of the poor human rights record of that country’s majority Sinhalese government.

Yet, just a few years ago, when Tamils fleeing that same oppressive Sri Lankan regime arrived in Canada, in two over-crowded boats, Harper's ministers called them queue jumpers, bogus refugees and "irregular arrivals." The Conservative government then locked them up.

New refugee law designed to limit access of refugees to Canada

The Harper government vowed to do everything possible to stop any potential influx of desperate people similar to the Sri Lankan Tamils who floated in on those leaky boats.

Jason Kenney's new refugee reform law, which the government introduced after the Tamil boat people came here, places significant sanctions on these notionally "irregular" arrivals.

Here again, the government is anything but consistent.

Definitely no little minds afflicted by those demon hobgoblins, here.

The Harper government has also moved to completely choke off any refugee flow from countries it deems "safe."

During the minority government period, the opposition parties agreed to a reform that would establish a so-called "safe" countries list.

That provision would give government officials the power to deal with asylum seekers from those designated safe countries much more expeditiously than other refugees.

However, in the law passed during the Harper minority, determination of which countries were actually safe was to be made based on tangible and verifiable evidence together with the analytic work of human rights experts.

Once he got a majority, Harper's Immigration Minister scrapped that carefully designed system, with its checks and balances.

Instead, a new law now gives the Minister of Immigration the nearly untrammeled power to determine the safe country list, arbitrarily.

Shortly after that new law came into force, and despite massive evidence of growing anti-semitism and rampant anti-Roma feeling in Hungary, Kenney quickly put Hungary and almost all other European Union countries on the "safe" list.

That move virtually ended the exodus toward Canada of Hungarian and other central and east European Roma. What had seemed, to a historically persecuted people, a welcoming, diverse and multicultural haven has now slammed its doors shut.

Cutting refugee health care: Conservative fundraising gambit?

Kenney also perceived that there could be political mileage in turning refugees as a group into political scapegoats.

To achieve that, his chosen vehicle was the modest "Interim Federal Health" program for refugees and asylum seekers in Canada.

Through this program, the federal government funded health care for people in the refugee system at a level equivalent to the health care for Canadians on social assistance.

But Kenney called it "gold-plated" health care, and inflated the financial impact by multiplying his planned annual $20 million cut by five. He repeatedly talked about "$100 million saved" without explaining that the figure he cited was five years' worth of cuts.

The Conservatives thought this was such a winning policy they promoted it to their members and donors.

When one considers all the significant legislative changes to environmental regulation, employment insurance and so much else that this government has wrought -- largely through its unprecedented omnibus bills -- it is more than passing strange that Conservative Party telephone fundraisers should have been trained to engage party faithful by touting cuts to health care for "undeserving" foreigners.

In dollar terms, refugee health care cuts are tiny and insignificant compared to so much of what this government has done.

The sad truth is that stigmatizing this vulnerable group is part of a deliberate strategy to appeal to any inchoate resentment that might exist out there toward refugees.

But while this strategy might work for parts of the Conservative base, it doesn't wash with a lot of other folks -- notably doctors, a group not much given to protesting in public.

White-coated doctors, refugee lawyers and other concerned citizens were out throughout Canada, again, on Monday, hammering away at the unfairness of Harper's cuts to refugee health.

What many find particularly galling are the cuts to maternal and infant health services.

"If Conservatives believe, as many say they do, in the sanctity of life," some ask, "why are they ready to risk the lives of unborn refugee children by denying them access to health care?"

Danyaal Raza, a family doctor at Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre in Ottawa, demolished Jason Kenney's habitual arguments on by one.

First, Dr. Raza attacked the "gold-plated" myth.

"Before your cuts," Raza said, addressing the absent Minister, "You knew that refugees and refugee claimants were receiving the same level of care as Canadians on social assistance -- no more, no less."

Then the Ottawa doctor took on Kenney's argument that refugee health cuts save Canadians money.

"As anyone with even a basic grasp of health economics will tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Raza said. "Denying access to basic preventative services, from prenatal care to cancer screening, only makes patients sicker. It makes declining health inevitable until emergencies are unavoidable."

In such circumstances, Raza promised, "Doctors will not violate their Hippocratic oath and deny care to those seeking help, refugee or otherwise."

Finally, the family doctor debunked what he called Kenney's "most unbelievable myth."

The Minister, Raza reported, had very recently claimed that "refugee health care was not even cut."

Kenney, according to Raza, now claims that 'legitimate' refugees still have their health care intact.

That is not true, the doctor argued in reply.

"You have cut care for privately sponsored refugees, for refugee claimants and for refugees appealing denied claims," Raza explained. "You have created so many categories and subcategories of the Interim Federal Health program that even government-sponsored refugees are being denied care by some clinics and hospitals made dizzy from all your spin."

"Minister," Raza concluded, "Cancer does not respect borders, diabetes knows not refugee status. Take back your snake oil. We’re not buying."



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