Hundreds Gather To Demand Equal Health Care for Refugees
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Hundreds Gather To Demand Equal Health Care for Refugees

Protestors marked the one year anniversary of cuts to the Interim Federal Health program for refugees.

Toronto 20130617 00039

A young protestor at the rally to restore funding for refugee health care. Photo by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.

Approximately 300 protestors gathered near the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration office at St. Clair and Yonge Monday afternoon, to demand an end to recent refugee health care cuts—part of a national day of action that saw nearly 20 rallies take place across the country. Scores of doctors, nurses, and health care practitioners attended in medical scrubs and lab coats. Refugee advocacy groups and other concerned residents joined them to decry the anniversary of government cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, a vital resource for resettled refugees and refugee claimants living in Canada.

The IFH program provided basic, temporary health care services for refugees, including maternal care and coverage for medication. In explaining the rationale for the program, the Ontario Medical Association has warned that “if a patient has a complex condition and doesn’t receive care because they don’t have health coverage or can’t afford it, treatment will cost the province more in the long run.”

The OMA also says that denying refugees timely access to care puts a strain on emergency medical services as those without health care become more seriously ill. In an apparent response to this fear, the federal government has maintained coverage only for medications which are seen to pose a risk to public health.

Dr. Hasan Sheikh, a family physician in Toronto, condemned the federal Conservative government for forcing doctors to violate their professional oaths. “In medical school, I was taught to treat disease, regardless of where a patient is from,” Sheihk told the crowd. He and several other speakers spoke of the impact of the cuts, not only on refugee health but on Canada’s longstanding reputation as a safe haven.

“We are dismayed, ashamed, and angry at the cuts to healthcare for refugees,” said physician (and Giller Prize-winning novelist) Dr. Vincent Lam, whose family fled from Vietnam shortly after that country’s war. “We must make concrete demonstrations of our commitment to the vulnerable and the weak, and that includes the refugees amongst us,” Lam said.

Citizenship and Immgration minister Jason Kenney at various times denied his government cut the IFH program, or has alternately suggested the cuts were necessary to save money and revoke “gold-plated benefits” from fraudulent refugee claimants. (His office did not respond to our request for comment on the IFH program or the public protests.)

Medical professionals told stories of vulnerable refugee claimants, particularly pregnant women, children, and elderly people, who have been unable to access timely health care because of the IFH cuts. Refugees themselves, however, did not speak at the demonstration. Dr. Sandy Buchman of the College of Family Physicians of Canada explained that “refugee claimants to this country, due to their realistic fear and their vulnerability, cannot speak for themselves, so we must speak up for them.”

Roseanne Hickey, a health practitioner and LAMP Community Health Centre in Mississauga, came with her colleagues to be part of the protest. “This is a country that signed on in to provide basic health care to people who arrive as refugee claimants,” Hickey said in reference to Canada’s ratification of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. “It’s ridiculous to create different classes of eligibility based on a person’s country of origin, without fair process, and without a hearing,” Hickey added.

“I understand there is some abuse in the system,” said another participant, Matt Kennedy, a medical student at the University of Toronto. “But I would prefer to err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, rather than cutting the program for everyone,” Kennedy added.

The demonstration ended with a fiery speech by Angela Roberston, the executive director of the Central Toronto Community Health Centres. Robertson condemned Kenney and the government not only for the refugee health care cuts, but for changes to refugee protections under Bill C-31 which she attributed to a sharp decline in refugee claims. Roberston then invited participants to face the federal building and join in singing the national anthem. “The principles that are held in this anthem belong to us, and we will not have you abuse it to deny care to refugees.”