Toronto rabbis urge PM not to cut refugees’ health care

Rabbi Michal Shekel

The Toronto Board of Rabbis has sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper imploring him to stop modifications to the country’s refugee health-care benefits program.

Changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, scheduled to take effect on June 30, mean the government would no longer provide supplemental health care to certain refugees during the year after they arrive in Canada, the board said.

“We have heard clearly from physicians across the country that people will face illness and even death if their access to life-saving medication through the program is cut off. This includes children,” the board said in its June 18 letter to Harper.

Under the revised program, refugee claimants from designated “safe” countries will still have their cases heard by the Immigration Refugee Board (IRB) to make their case, but they will no longer receive any supplemental health coverage from Canada unless they have an illness or condition that is potentially hazardous to the public at large, according to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.

For example, refugees from designated safe countries of origin arriving in Canada with tuberculosis will receive medical care. Others with diabetes will no longer have insulin covered under the federal program.

The board’s letter was signed by its outgoing president and its executive director, Rabbi Howard Morrison and Rabbi Michal Shekel, respectively.

Rabbi Shekel, who is also spiritual leader of Congregation Or Hadash in Newmarket, Ont., said the board didn’t send the letter with any political intent, but that it was motivated by how strongly the majority of rabbis felt about this particular issue.

“We are concerned with issues, not partisan politics,” she told The CJN.  “We sent the letter by email. It’s an issue that resonates strongly with the Jewish community.”

The Toronto Board of Rabbis said it was also concerned about proposed changes to immigration laws under Bill C-31, Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which would allow the government to create a list of so-called “safe countries” – a.k.a. “designated countries of origin” or DCOs in government parlance – that it would not consider dangerous for its citizens and hence disallow asylum claimants from those regions.

If the bill passes, it might turn away legitimate asylum seekers fleeing persecution, including Jews, from countries such as Hungary, which would likely be designated a safe nation despite growing concerns of rising institutional antisemitism and anti-Roma attitudes, the board said

Bill C-31 is now being debated in the Senate.

“We are alarmed at the idea of designating specific countries as safe for all people. As Jews, we know that countries where the majority lives in safety can be dangerous for minority groups. Roma people living in Hungary, for example, face persecution that has been documented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other human rights groups,” the board wrote.

Reached in Alberta on June 27, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the board’s letter was based on false premises and “a great deal of misinformation.”

He said no country could ever be designated safe for all people. However, when refugees arrive in Canada from countries not known to produce refugees, there “can be a presumption that few of those claims are likely to be valid.”

“One cannot, nor does our new system propose, to reject claims coming from such countries, as this letter suggests,” he said.

All claimants will have hearings to evaluate the merits of their asylum claims before the Immigration Refugee Board (IRB), he said. Those from designated safe countries will be processed more quickly through Canada’s immigration system, since it’s likely their claims will be rejected. This will end up saving Canadians money and freeing up resources for valid refugee claims, he said.

Referring to Hungary, Kenney said Canada had experienced a marked increase of refugee claimants from the European nation over the last few years.

“The number 1 source region for asylum claimants to Canada is not Africa or Asia or Latin America… not North Korea or Iran or Venezuela; it’s Hungary,” he said.

In April, Kenney said he believed many Roma claimants from Hungary were making false refugee claims and abusing Canada’s refugee system.

IRB statistics confirm a spike in Roma claims from 2010 to 2012.

Kenney questioned rhetorically why Hungarian citizens seeking refuge from their state didn’t take advantage of their “full mobility rights” within the European Union.

He said nearly 95 per cent of Hungarian asylum seekers worldwide make their claims in Canada.

They do so to enrol in Canada’s generous social benefits and to obtain federal work permits and to get supplemental health benefits that are greater than what they get in Hungary, he said.

“One would have to be blind to the facts to suggest there aren’t other factors at play in this… ‘irregular migration.’ This [situation] undermines and abuses our immigration system,” Kenney said. “Thousands of unqualified claimants consume massive resources and slow down the system for those bona fide claimants that need Canada’s protection.”

Rabbi Shekel said the board understands the government is trying to address problems with loopholes in the immigration laws and that Ottawa is not deliberately trying to cause harm.

“But that is exactly what we fear will happen if these changes are made to health-care coverage for people who are refugees,” the board wrote. “As Jewish Canadians, many of us have suffered, or watched our loved ones suffer, at the hands of cruel and discriminatory rules for refugees. We cannot stand silent as people’s health is put in danger, and their right to Canadian citizenship cast into question due to their country of origin or mode of arrival.”

She said the new legislation needed to be better thought out and rewritten in “a more nuanced manner.”

“As rabbis and as human beings, we ask that you abandon the idea of ‘designated countries’ and ‘irregular arrivals,’ and rescind the proposed changes to refugee health-care coverage,” the board wrote.

Asked how he responds to the rabbis’ concerns about the upcoming restrictions on health-care coverage for refugee claimants in Canada, Kenney replied: “I’ve been in parliament for 15 years, and I don’t recall ever receiving a letter from the Toronto Board of Rabbis suggesting that Canadians’ lives are jeopardized by not having public insurance for ‘life-saving medications.’ I find it peculiar they would choose to raise this concern for rejected asylum claimants or those with [fraudulent] claims.”

He said Canada would still continue to provide “emergency” health benefits to rejected claimants.

“I don’t see anyone arguing that we have a moral, legal or humanitarian obligation to provide taxpayer-funded health insurance to people visiting Canada or to illegal immigrants. There are limits. I don’t think it’s uncompassionate to say that in the real world of scarce resources, we will focus our health resources on Canadian citizens and on resettled refugees,” Kenney said.

The list of designated countries of origin has yet to be drawn up, but Kenney said he believes the majority of the list will be made up of countries from Europe.

“Refugees coming from countries in the European Union, where they have universal health-care coverage, will have to get their own health-care insurance [when they come to Canada]. I don’t think that’s unreasonable at all.”   

Workers on the front lines of health care in Ontario remain concerned for newcomers.

Andrea Cohen, CEO of Unison Health and Community Services, a non-profit network of health-care facilities in the Toronto area, said her organization serves more than 12,000 clients throughout the city, many of whom are refugees with urgent medical needs.

She said depriving them of federally sponsored medical care could end up driving refugees to hospital emergency wards. This might result in increased provincial health costs and longer emergency room wait times.

“People who have health issues without coverage have nowhere else to go but the ER,” she said. “If that happens, it will cost taxpayers far more than leaving the current program in place,” Cohen said.

Dr. Andrea Stern, a general practitioner with Unison, said many of her clients have asked how they will continue to receive vital medication after June 30. 

“We have clients who are refugee claimants, and are seeing first-hand the pain this will cause,” Stern said in a statement. “There are vulnerable people who are taking medications like insulin right now who won’t have access. They are panicked, and we don’t know what to tell them.”

The Canadian Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Canadian Paediatric Association have also called on government to continue funding vital supplemental health care for refugee claimants.

Rabbi Shekel said she held out hope the government would change its mind before the legislation takes effect next week.