Suspicious hospitality

Feds reduce health coverage for refugees

By Will Braun | Senior Writer
Khadijah, Yehia and Bashar are refugees from Iraq who arrived in Ontario in 2010. Threats of kidnapping and death forced their family to flee Iraq.

According to the UN, there are 10.5 million “refugees of concern” in the world. These are people uprooted from their homes, fleeing conflict, natural disaster or persecution. While roughly 25,000 of these people will be allowed to settle in Canada this year, Mennonite refugee advocates worry about recent changes to immigration policy.

Starting June 30, health services for people who come here as refugees are to be reduced. Under the pared down Interim Federal Health Program, affected groups will no longer receive dental care, vision care, long-term care or coverage for prescription medications, except when public health is at risk. General health care will be restricted to matters of an “essential or urgent nature,” and to public health risks such as communicable diseases.

Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, said in an April release that the government’s objective is to change the immigration system “so that it meets Canada’s economic needs.” He said Canadians are “very generous,” but should not be asked to cover benefits for refugee claimants that are beyond benefits received by most Canadians. The government hopes the changes will save $100 million over five years.

In the last five years, Canada has accepted an average of 253,000 immigrants annually. Less than 10 percent are refugees—people forced to leave their country of citizenship. The rest are “family class” immigrants joining relatives already in Canada, or “economic class” immigrants such as skilled workers, entrepreneurs and investors.

The changes to health coverage apply primarily to the 25,000 refugees. For sponsored refugees, the sponsor—often a church—will be left to cover medical costs not eligible under the new guidelines. Unsponsored refugee claimants will have to pay for the health services themselves, if they can, or do without.

The Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support, based in Kitchener, Ont., provides a range of legal, logistical and community supports to about 400 unsponsored families. Eunice Valenzuela, who heads the organization, says, “Every human being has the right to have access to health care.” She disagrees with the changes and is troubled that community groups were not consulted.

Medical professionals were not consulted either. In a letter to Kenney, eight national healthcare associations slammed the government’s plans, asking, “Are we as a country willing to risk the health of a pregnant mother who is receiving required medications before June 20 by telling her she is no longer eligible after June 30?”

Valenzuela is concerned about what she sees as Ottawa’s increasingly “negative” attitude towards refugees. Similarly, Ed Wiebe, who works on refugee issues for Mennonite Central Committee Canada, talks about a “hardening” of government positions.

But in a May 12 letter to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Kenney said of the health program changes, “What is changing is that bogus refugees, including those whose claims have been rejected, will no longer receive, at taxpayer expense, enhanced services such as eye and dental coverage that are unavailable to many Canadians.”

In response, Valenzuela says a minister who lumps vulnerable, honest people in with fraudulent claimants is “a bogus minister.”

The health program changes will affect more than just ineligible claimants. Valenzuela talks about people she works with who have survived torture and families that face life and death situations, causing her to ask, “What right does [Kenney] have to call them bogus?”

In a May speech to the Empire Club in Toronto, Kenney said Canada must avoid the “anti-immigrant sentiment” that is “regrettably” widespread in the U.S. But federal officials often characterize refugees as suspicious people out to skirt laws and take advantage of taxpayers. Valenzuela objects to this injection of “fear” into the public debate.

While the Citizenship and Immigration website says, “Our compassion and fairness are a source of great pride for Canadians,” few refugee claimants will have gleaned that sentiment from Kenney’s comments about them or from the blunt one-page letter they received about the health cuts.

Canadian Mennonites—many of whom are descendants of refugees, and some of whom are recent refugees themselves—have a strong history of sponsoring global neighbours in need of a safe homeland. At the same time, Wiebe sees the effects of negative messaging about refugees in churches he visits. “That rhetoric is winning these days,” he laments.

As suspicion of refugees grows in Canada, a few of the 10.5 million global refugees will be counting on Mennonite generosity and hospitality remaining intact.

Visit for a link to a video of a protest to the cuts in Kitchener, Ont.

Khadijah, Yehia and Bashar are refugees from Iraq who arrived in Ontario in 2010. Threats of kidnapping and death forced their family to flee Iraq.

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