Health Coalition Says Refugee Claimants Need Access to Social Assistance

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Health Coalition Says Refugee Claimants Need Access to Social Assistance

Group condemns proposed law that could limit access to social assistance for those who aren't permanent residents.

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Supporters of social assistance for refugee claimants display a letter signed by 160 community organizations. Photo courtesy of Health For All coalition.

A group representing health care and community organizations met in front of federal finance minister Joe Oliver’s office Tuesday morning to condemn a proposed law that could deny refugee claimants access to social assistance. Dr. Ritika Goel of the Health For All coalition led a brief press conference in front of Oliver’s constituency office at Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue.

Goel read a letter signed by 160 health and community organizations that oppose sections of budget bill C-43, a piece of legislation that would allow provinces to restrict access to social assistance for refugee claimants and others who lack permanent residency status.

“To receive social assistance in any province, one must already qualify through testing and demonstrate great need,” the letter states. “To then deny social assistance based on immigration status is to cruelly deny the most vulnerable in our society the crucial lifeline that allows them to survive.” The letter also argues that since many refugee claimants have arrived from conflict zones and suffer serious health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, they may struggle to find meaningful work in Canada.

Doris Grinspun of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario called on Oliver to end what she characterized as an attack on refugees. “This is uncalled for in a country as rich and as fair as Canada,” said Grinspun. Karin Baqi of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario said the proposed bill is a deliberate attempt to deny people the most basic human rights. “Without social assistance, many refugees literally will not be able to eat, will not be able to have any shelter.” Baqi added that while the government claims its legislation is meant to curb abuse of social assistance, it has not provided any evidence that such abuse occurs.

When the group attempted to deliver their letter to staff at Minister Oliver’s constituency office, they found the doors locked and the lights turned off. Staff could be seen inside the office. As of publication time, Oliver has not responded to a Torontoist request for comment.

Michael Butler from the Council of Canadians said his group opposes the “xenophobia, racism, and outright callousness displayed by this government.” Butler expressed anger that such significant legislation, which was originally introduced as a private member’s bill, is now included in an omnibus budget bill and will therefore be subject to less debate in parliament.

Butler also addressed what he called the myth that the government is being overwhelmed with false refugee claims. “This creates an erroneous but convenient scapegoat in the form of the foreign freeloader,” Butler said. “This strategy is designed to shift the conversation from the very real impacts of the government’s decisions on these communities, and legitimizes a space for discreet racism.”

Many activists have been outraged by the federal government’s decision to deny refugee claimants access to basic health care over the past two years. A federal court recently ruled that the government’s denial of health care constitutes “cruel and unusual” treatment.

Goel said such policies have a significant impact on Toronto’s large refugee communities. “If this policy were to be passed, we would likely see a huge downloading of services and costs onto community organizations,” she said. “We might see an increase in homelessness in the refugee population, people turning to food banks and shelters, and maybe even to the streets.”

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