Photo: flickr/ Kat R

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Federal cuts to health care for refugees and the adverse effects resulting from them, have been well-publicized. The fight to restore full health-care coverage is moving forward, thanks to the hard work of health-care professionals, lawyers, and refugee advocates.

What is lesser known is that refugees in Canada now face the threat of losing access to social assistance as well. Under legislation quietly passed by the federal government last year, provinces and territories will no longer face a financial penalty if they choose to impose a minimum residency requirement for eligibility for social assistance. For claimants without any other source of income, social assistance is crucial for them to afford such basic necessities as food, shelter, and clothing.

A study released recently by Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), “The Invisible Victims,” examines the economic, humanitarian, and legal effects this residency requirement would have in Canada.

Earlier this year, CPJ asked the leaders of each provincial and territorial government whether they planned to impose a residency requirement. In response, eight explicitly stated that they have no intention of doing so, and none have so far indicated any interest in changing their current income assistance programs as a result of this new policy.

However, many refugee advocates remain wary. Some have warned that costs will simply shift to municipalities and charities that do not have the resources to respond to what would be a drastic rise in demand for social services. Others have expressed deep concern over the disproportionately negative impact a residency requirement would have on refugee claimants who often have no other source of income when they arrive in Canada.

Still others have pointed to the potential contraventions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as various international human rights covenants to which Canada is signatory that require it to provide social assistance for those residing in our country.

“The Invisible Victims” includes a survey of service providers who work directly with refugees as well as personal testimonies from claimants. The report demonstrates that not only would these individuals be unable to support themselves, but the capacity of these organizations to provide services would be greatly impeded as many of them rely on this source of provincial funding.

It also discredits the federal government’s claim that the policy would save money for taxpayers and details the domestic and international legislation that it would likely violate.

While there may not be an immediate cause for concern given the provinces and territories’ seeming lack of interest, the danger lies in the uncertainty that has been created for refugee claimants and the organizations that support them. There are many factors that could eventually lead a province or territory to believe that utilizing this provision would be in its best interests. This study is intended to make the case that this would be an inadvisable policy route as its costs far outweigh any perceived benefits.

For nearly 60 years, the federal government maintained a prohibition on residency requirements for social assistance. Yet our current government has seen fit to dissolve this policy, leaving the lives of refugees vulnerable to political interests. It remains unclear what the government’s motivations are or why they are choosing to target one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

A representative from Citizenship and Immigration Canada was even forced to admit before the House of Commons that refugee claimants were the only group likely to be affected by a minimum residency requirement for social assistance. It seems that the federal government is deliberately designing policies that will be detrimental to refugee claimants.

Given the changes to our federal immigration system over the past few years, it is safe to assume that this will not be the last initiative to make the lives of refugee claimants more miserable. It is therefore our responsibility as citizens and advocates to make sure we are informed and understand the wider repercussions of policies that seek to disenfranchise the most vulnerable in our society.

We must remember that mercy and compassion are integral components of our national identity. We are known worldwide for our humanitarianism and we should continue this proud tradition. Our country was founded by migrants who contributed their skills and expertise to create the remarkable nation we know today, and if given the opportunity, refugees can help build an even stronger Canada.

Kathryn Teeluck is with Citizens for Public Justice, a national organization of members inspired by faith to act for justice in Canadian public policy.

Photo: flickr/ Kat R