Refugee lawyers: Cuts to Interim Federal Health Program are 'wrong and illegal'

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Peter Showler is Director of the Refugee Forum, University of Ottawa, and Co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Canadian Association of Refugee Laws (CARL). He gave the following presentation on Parliament Hill on Monday, June 17.

Good morning, Thank you all for being here and we all know why we are here.

On behalf of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers -- our friends call us CARL, Jason Kenney calls us self-interested militant leftists -- I am here, actually, we are here, because there are many CARL members, lawyers and law students, who are here today to support Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and all health care workers who have shown up here on Parliament Hill and in cities across Canada to tell the government that cuts to refugee health care are wrong.

Although we are a very different profession, refugee lawyers have at least one thing in common with doctors and other health professionals; we both understand the vulnerability of refugees. We both understand that in first seeking refugee protection, refugees are unavoidably reliant upon professionals, both medical and legal, until they are able to prove their claims, gain employment, and slowly establish themselves in Canadian society.

For 55 years, the Interim Federal Health Program paid for basic health care for refugee claimants and refused claimants until they were removed from the country or became eligible for provincial health care. Suddenly, with no consultation, the government abolished the program in June, 2012, and replaced it with a program that denies basic medical care to thousands of refugee claimants who have lawfully sought Canada's  protection. And I emphasize that word, lawfully. Despite the disinformation of the government, refugee claimants are legally here in Canada seeking protection from persecution.

After the cuts were announced, the government ignored all the rational arguments from doctors, lawyers, policy makers and provincial governments for why the cuts were wrong in every sense: medically, economically, morally, and finally, legally.

After all of the rational, carefully constructed arguments were rebuffed by the government, in February of this year, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and CARL, along with three refugee patients who were denied medical care, filed an application in Federal court for a declaration that the IFHP cuts are unconstitutional and inconsistent with our international legal obligations.

We have put forward four legal arguments.

- The cuts threaten the rights to life and security of the person in section 7 of the Charter. The government has given no coherent reason for the cuts. They have made vague noises about discouraging fraudulent claims with no evidence that the cuts would have that effect while cutting benefits to people who are subsequently recognized as refugees. In legal language, the cuts are arbitrary and unjustified. 

- The cuts amount to cruel and unusual treatment, contrary to section 12 of the Charter. The Supreme Court of Canada has already said that discriminatory denial of health care can amount to cruel and unusual treatment. In short, refugee claimants will be caused unnecessary pain and suffering.

- Contrary to section 15 of the Charter, the cuts discriminate against refugees from certain countries. The Minister of Immigration has the power to designate certain countries, quite arbitrarily, as "safe" although they are not safe for many who are subsequently recognized as refugees. As you have heard, claimants from those countries receive no health care at all, unless their medical condition is a danger to Canadians.

- The cuts are inconsistent with Canada's international legal obligations. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention. Relating the Status of Refugees, Canada is obliged to provide basic health care for refugees and children. A denial of basic health care is a violation of those obligations.

I can tell you the court action is proceeding. After three months of hard work, 21 affidavits have been filed in court, over a thousand pages of testimony documenting the medical histories of nearly 50 refugees and refugee claimants.

It is the work of over 60 volunteers -- from Vancouver to Brussels -- health care providers, academics, lawyers, social workers and refugee claimants. It has been a tremendous effort and despite what Jason Kenney says about self-interested lawyers, all of the legal work has been done for free.

There is much more legal work to do: cross-examining government witnesses and cross-examination on our own evidence to say nothing of preparing legal arguments. We might be in court by late fall or possibly early in the new year.

When we will be in court is uncertain, but what I can assure you is that, unless the government reverses it policy, we will get to court and the evidence will be placed before a judge. Then all of the half-truths, all the quarter truths, all the sly innuendo, all the sneaky omissions, all the out-and-out lies, will be exposed for what they are.

Only a few days ago, Minister Kenney's spokesperson was once again prattling on about "gold plated health care" for "fraudulent refugee claimants." It is nonsense, and worse, it is mean-minded nonsense that seeks to justify harsh, inhumane policies directed against some of the most vulnerable people in Canada.

As lawyers and law students, we are very proud to be standing beside Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and all health care providers, in court, here today on Parliament Hill , and right across Canada.

As for Minister Kenney and the federal government, if they do not reverse these outrageous health cuts to refugees, I have only four words: "See you in Court."

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