Maria left her country in the middle of the night. She and her husband dodged armed patrols to get across the border. They would have been shot if they were discovered. Her husband had only recently been released from detention as a political prisoner, where he was tortured.
Soon after their escape, they came as refugees to Canada. They arrived on a ship, with nothing but what they wore, and a very small amount of money they received as part of the resettlement process. They were my grandparents.
On June 30, Canada radically altered the way refugees are treated. The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto states that these new changes to our health care system “will leave many refugees with less access to care than what they may have received in refugee camps, putting them at risk of developing new onset mental health problems.”
Before the changes, refugees were given the same access to health care that we provide to other low income, vulnerable populations in Canada.
But Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Jason Kenney wants to cut costs – by targeting refugees. Under the revised Interim Federal Health Plan, refugees will be permitted to access hospitals or doctors only in emergency situations. Even worse, the Minister will be able to decide, as a political rather than factual matter, that some countries are “safe”. A refugee from a country on that list will not even be allowed to access emergency health care. Such a person would only be treated if their condition is deemed a threat to public health. Having a heart attack? Too bad. Having a baby? Do it yourself. Feeling suicidal? Just don’t hit anyone else on your swan dive.
This is a kind of society that few Canadians would recognize, and medical professionals across the country are standing up in protest.
According to Minister Kenney, the cuts will save $20 million per year for five years, and discourage “abuse” of the refugee claim system. He appears to be under the impression that people flee their countries, jobs, and families so they can cheat their way into accessing Canadian health care. Even if these cuts could actually save the money he promises, this would be an appalling way to economize. But the savings are an illusion.
Doctors for Refugee Care state that denying preventive health care to refugees simply creates a greater burden on our already taxed emergency rooms. Failing to treat health conditions when they emerge will delay treatment until the situation becomes extreme, and treatment more expensive. Far from saving money, this policy will only result in greater overall costs.
Denying health services to refugees is essentially refusing them the basic care they need to become productive contributors to our society. How is a refugee with untreated cataracts stealing her vision going to find a job? How will a man traumatized by torture and suffering from post-traumatic stress be able to function normally and support his family?
In addition to being bad economics, the cuts to refugee care are a violation of Canada’s international obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees, which requires that we accord equal treatment within our borders to individuals recognized as refugees. This legal accountability echoes our ethical responsibility - to values that define what Canada has stood for, and attracted my grandparents from the ravages of Soviet rule.