Jason Kenney announces major changes in refugee law early in 2012.

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Update: On Tuesday morning, November 4, with the deadline looming, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced that the Harper government will comply with the Federal Court of Appeals ruling, and will reinstate the refugee health program.

He added, however, that the government’s “focus” will continue to be on the minority to whom it had, all along, agreed to provide health care: “resettled refugees” and “successful asylum seekers.”

“Resettled refugees” are those the government agrees to take in, for the most part, from camps operated by the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees). Sometimes these refugees are sponsored by Canadian groups, who undertake to provide some economic support. This category of refugees accounts for a small minority of the total number of people in the Canadian refugee process.

“Successful asylum seekers”, that is, refugee claimants whose claims are accepted by the IRB (the Immigration and Refugee Board), become permanent residents of Canada. After a short waiting period, they are fully entitled to all provincial benefits, including health care. Ergo, the government’s “focus” on that group comes at minimal cost.

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The Conservative government continues to vigorously dissuade refugees from coming to Canada, in a way that is unprecedented in Canada’s post Second World War history.

When Jason Kenney was Minister of Immigration he brought in a new law that gives the Minister the right to arbitrarily declare any country of origin “safe.”

Refugees coming from such designated countries have a very limited window of opportunity to establish their claims, and, more important, no effective right to appeal.

Kenney also killed the federal refugee health program, which had existed for many decades.

The purpose of the health program was to assure that often-destitute refugees receive the same health care as Canadians do. Despite Conservative claims that the program provided “gold-plated” health care unavailable to Canadian citizens, in fact the program gave refugees exactly the level of service that Canadians on social assistance receive.

No more; no less.

This past July a Federal Court judge ordered Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives to reinstate the refugee health program, and told them to do so in four months, by November 4 (today). 

After that ruling, the Conservatives immediately announced that they would appeal.

Then, they dawdled and ragged the puck for more than two months. At the last minute, in late September, they formally appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal, and asked for a stay of the July judgment that required reinstatement of the program.

On Friday, the Court of Appeal turned down their request for a stay.

In the original July decision, Justice Anne McTavish ruled that there were lives at stake here.

Refugee claimants were being denied basic and necessary services such as kidney dialysis, insulin for diabetes and chemotherapy for cancer — not to mention pre- and post-natal care for women and new babies.

While governments are sometimes allowed a grace period after courts overturn their decisions, in this case, McTavish said, she could not allow that. The potentially fatal risks to people in the refugee process are simply too great, she ruled.

The Federal Court of Appeal agreed with McTavish’s reasoning.

Conservatives unmoved by the threat to refugees’ lives

Jason Kenney, for all his charm and affability, slips easily into the cloak of ideological hardliner. The current Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, a former career diplomat, does not seem to find it so easy.  

On Monday, Alexander’s response verged on the bizarre when the NDP’s Andrew Cash put the question to him this way:

“The minister ignored the protests of doctors, refugee advocates, provinces and parliamentarians, and took health care away from children and pregnant women. He ignored the ruling of the Federal Court that said his cuts were ‘cruel and unusual.’ Now he’s lost another case, as the Federal Court of Appeal has emphasized the harm suffered by refugees without health care. Will the minister finally give up his lengthy assault on basic Canadian values?”

“On our side of the House,” Alexander answered, “It is not among basic Canadian values to offer health care, often health care that went beyond that provided to Canadians, to those whose immigration and refugee claims have failed, or to those who were deliberately fraudulent in their representation to the Immigration and Refugee Board.”

First, Alexander conflates “immigration” claims and refugee claims.

For the most part, those in the first group apply to become immigrants from their home countries  and are accepted or rejected on the basis of a shifting number of government requirements.

The Harper government boasts that it has plans to accept a record number of such immigrants, with an emphasis on people with education, skills and money. (And the government’s attitude seems to be that if those new immigrants come from western countries, such as Ireland and France, rather than the developing world — so much the better.)

Refugees, on the other hand, are people who have grounds to believe they are victims of persecution and potential violence. Aside from those recruited in refugee camps, they do not apply from outside Canada. Refugees — or, more accurately, refugee claimants — arrive here by whatever means they can and seek Canada’s protection, under the terms of a treaty Canada signed more than six decades ago, the 1951 Convention on Refugees.

Legitimately and legally ‘in the system’

Some refugee claimants (also called asylum seekers) are rebuffed at the first round stage, often after very cursory examinations of the facts by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). They have a right to appeal (unless they are from a designated “safe” country), first to the IRB’s own appeal division, then (on legal grounds) to the Federal Court.

If asylum seekers fail in both of those instances, they can also apply to the Department of Immigration for humanitarian and compassionate leave to remain in Canada.

In other words, these people have not had their claims finally and irrevocably rejected. They are legitimately and legally “in the system.” Kenney and Alexander would deny them health care and social assistance.

As for those refugee claimants whom, without evidence, Alexander maliciously slanders as being “fraudulent” — well, he did not say what he meant by that.

Jason Kenney used to employ a similar term, “bogus,” to describe refugee claimants from such countries as Hungary, countries he said were “safe.”

Kenney was mostly targeting the members of the Roma community, whose systematic victimization in many parts of Europe has been well-documented (and discussed at length in this space over the past two and a half years).

Hungary’s current nominally democratic, but in fact authoritarian government blithely tolerates acts of hate and violence against the Roma. Canada has decided to turn a blind eye to that, in the interest of pushing through a free trade deal with the European Union.

What might be more worrying for Harper’s Conservatives, given their electoral interests, is that the same Hungarian government tolerates racist acts and attitudes toward its Jewish population, which is large compared to that of most other Central and Eastern Europe countries.

Does Alexander say Jewish refugees from antisemitism in Europe are ‘fraudulent’?

One such Jewish victim of this Hungarian racism is Ákos Kertész, an octogenarian Jewish-Hungarian writer, film-maker and critic, who has won numerous literary awards in Hungary and whose books have been translated into many languages world-wide.

Kertész now lives happily in exile, in Montreal, after being hounded by the Hungarian authorities and threatened by anti-Semitic thugs — all because he had the temerity to criticize Hungarians’ “servile” attitudes toward anti-democratic regimes, including the current Victor Orban government of Hungary.

The IRB granted Kertesz refugee status, as it has to numerous Roma, despite the protestations of Kenney and Alexander.

Ákos Kertész is the sort of person to whom Alexander and Kenney would deny heath care — and, for good measure, while his case was being determined, any provincial social assistance whatsoever.

Denigrating the Roma or turning their backs on refugees from Syria is an easy win for the Harper gang. Neither group has significant political clout in Canada.

But what chance do you think there is that Kenney or Alexander might want to tell Canadian Jewish groups that refugees from anti-Semitic persecution in notionally “safe” countries, such as Hungary, are “fraudulent”?

Photo: Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...