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First the Harper government attacked refugee health; now, it's welfare

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The Harper government has big problems with refugees.

We have reported on that baffling but unavoidable fact in this space frequently over the past three-plus years.

It started when former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney launched a rhetorical campaign against what he called "bogus" refugees from friendly, safe Western democracies such as Hungary.

When pushed, Kenney might begrudgingly admit that the people he was talking about -- the Roma of Europe -- do face great difficulties.

Kenney might agree that the Roma are victims of massive and systemic discrimination -- discrimination which arises out of widespread and deeply ingrained prejudices against the hated "Gypsies." Indeed, the former Immigration Minister once even condemned "nutbar" Hungarian extremist groups that make sport out of tormenting Roma.

Nonetheless, Kenney would insist, there is an important legal difference between discrimination -- even severe discrimination -- and persecution. The Roma may suffer from the former; but not from the latter. Ergo, they are not refugees.

When he was in a less charitable mood, Kenney would just trot out the "bogus" epithet and leave it at that.

The notionally arm's length Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) took its lead from the Minister and clamped down on refugees from Hungary.

The creation of the 'safe country' list and trade negotiations

Then, Kenney went further -- much further.

He overhauled the refugee system to give him, as Minister, the power to unilaterally classify any country a "safe" Designated Country of Origin (DCO). And he imposed an impossibly brief 30-day hearing period, with no right of appeal, on asylum-seekers from those DCOs.

The Canadian government even put up billboard ads in Hungary advising desperate and put-upon Roma to stay away from Canada.

Those actions have slowed the inflow of Roma refugee claimants to a trickle.

As on so many other matters, the Federal Court sharply disagrees with the Conservative government on its refugee policy, especially as regards the Hungarian Roma.

On October 30, Federal Court Justice Douglas Campbell ruled on the case of a Hungarian Roma couple who had been victim of a series of hate-motivated assaults.

The IRB had rejected the couple's refugee claim. The Board did not claim that the assaults had not occurred, only that the Hungarian government was able and willing to "protect" this couple.

The Board's evidence for that? The fact that a Hungarian police officer once interviewed one member of the couple.

Justice Campbell ruled that the IRB's decision was, in effect, nonsense.

He said that, contrary to the IRB's presumptions about the Hungarian government's capacity (or even willingness) to protect the Roma, there is ample evidence of Hungarian police brutality toward the Roma. Even worse, there is evidence of virtual police collusion with the racist hooligans who target Roma.

Justice Campbell's ruling gave the lie to the Conservative government's decision to award "safe country" status to Hungary.

But, in fact, the Conservatives' choices in this matter have nothing to do with human rights; nor are they genuinely motivated by fears of Canada being overwhelmed by "bogus" refugees.

Conservative refugee policy is all about Prime Minister Harper's Free Trade Agreement with the European Union.

The fact that so many people were fleeing EU countries and seeking refuge in Canada was a source of severe embarrassment to the Europeans, and an irritant in trade negotiations. It was hard to expect that a country such as Hungary would vote for approval of a free trade deal with Canada as long as Canada continued to give credence to the persecution claims of thousands of its citizens.

Pushed by persecution or pulled by welfare payments?

When refugee reform was being debated in Canada, European Union spokespeople tried to argue that asylum-seekers such as the Roma were not "pushed" to flee to Canada by their nasty treatment at home. They were rather "pulled" here by generous Canadian social assistance.

While on rare occasions he evinced a touch of sympathy for an ethnic minority that has been one of history's most enduring scapegoats, Jason Kenney also tilted toward the darker side and used that same "welfare-pull" argument.

On more than one occasion, Kenney suggested that if Ontario and other provinces would stop giving these "bogus" folks generous welfare, they might stop coming here.

At some point, someone must have pointed out to Kenney the fact the provinces have little choice but to give social assistance to all refugee claimants.

Federal law obliges them to.

Federal rules for its fiscal transfers to the provinces state that provinces must make social assistance available to all legal residents without restriction. Refugee claimants are -- all of them -- legal residents of Canada.

Given that fact, it is not surprising that the Conservatives now plan to amend the fiscal transfer rules to allow provinces to establish minimum residency requirements. Those requirements could effectively leave most of the poor, scared and hungry folks in the refugee process out in the cold.

Of course, this being the Harper government, they have proceeded in a sideways manner.

The Conservatives' first line of attack was to introduce the fiscal transfer changes through a private member's bill from an obscure government backbencher.

When that stratagem seemed to attract too much negative attention, they put the private member's bill on the back-burner. Then -- as predicted in this space -- they slipped the fiscal changes into their most recent budget implementation bill, C-43.

Just a 'technical' matter of respecting provinces' jurisdiction?

The Conservatives' current approach is to low-ball the significance of their own initiative.

They've dropped the hot rhetoric about dissuading "bogus" refugees from taking advantage of our generosity. Instead, they portray the fiscal transfer changes as a mere matter of technical housekeeping.

When the House Immigration Committee heard witnesses on these fiscal changes, this past Wednesday, those who advocate for refugees evoked the potential suffering that could be visited on destitute and traumatized people.

Avvy Go, Clinic Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic and a member of the Colour of Poverty/Colour of Change Network, put it this way:

"Refugees are among the most vulnerable in our society and often arrive in Canada with little or no support. These provisions, if implemented, will effectively render them ineligible for even the bare minimal amount of support they need for food and shelter."

Peter Showler, a former chair of the IRB who testified on behalf of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, pointed out that all developed countries have provisions for providing people in the refugee process with basic social assistance. That income support comes in many forms -- in the form of government-supplied housing, for instance. But no countries of similar socioeconomic status to Canada have even considered taking basic social and economic support away from refugees and asylum-seekers.

On the other side, those who spoke in support of the fiscal transfer changes, such as retired diplomat James Bissett and Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, barely addressed the potential impact on refugees.

They insisted on the federal government's need to "respect provincial jurisdiction," and argued that, in any case, the proposed changes would not likely have any actual impact on provinces' welfare policies and practices.

If the fiscal transfer rule changes would effectively change nothing, then why bother with them? That was the question opposition MPs, such as the Liberals' John McCallum and the NDP's Andrew Cash, kept asking. Nobody seemed interested in answering.

At one point, Bissett did entertain the idea that some provinces might, one day, choose to cut off many of the people in the refugee process. But he then tried to argue that non-governmental organizations, set up to provide services to immigrants and refugees whose claims have been accepted, might somehow, magically, be able to fill the gap.

What Bissett forgot to mention is that these agencies have no right to spend any of their federal government money on the category of refugee claimants who risk losing their social assistance.

One can just imagine the Conservative government's reaction if a federally funded charitable agency, whose job was to provide employment assistance and language training to immigrants, tried to use its money, instead, to feed and house refugee claimants. How long do readers think any agency would get away with that?

Harper government playing the long game

The fact is that to find a rationale for this supposedly "technical" change one has to go back a few years to Jason Kenney's time as Minister of Immigration. We have to remind ourselves of the then-Minister of Immigration's frequent fulminations against queue jumpers and cheaters, who are greedy for Canada's health care and lucrative welfare.

When it came to refugee health, it was the federal government that ran the program, lock, stock and barrel. Thus, the federal government could simply slice away at health services for refugees, at will -- until the Federal Court called it to order.  

Social assistance is another matter, however. The provinces have always controlled welfare payments for all who are entitled, including refugees. And so, lacking the capacity to simply take welfare away from refugees, the Conservatives are doing the next best thing. They are, in effect, encouraging the provinces to cut that welfare.

For now, the provinces -- most notably Ontario, which has the lion's share of refugees -- show no inclination to go along. But governments tend to change, over time. Kathleen Wynne will not be Premier of Ontario forever, for instance.

With these "technical" fiscal transfer changes, the Harper government is playing the long game.

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