Roundtable highlights refugee health-care struggles

Health care workers in 17 Canadians cities call on the federal government to reverse its cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program from 2012.
Health care workers in 17 Canadians cities call on the federal government to reverse its cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program from 2012. Brent McGillvray / Global News

VIDEO GALLERY: Refugee care controversy

TORONTO – Every second Saturday, a small clinic in Toronto offers free medical care to anyone who needs it – no health card, insurance or paperwork is required.

The clinic launched in response to the federal government’s cuts to refugee health care two years ago, said Francisco Rico-Martinez, a co-director for the FCJ Refugee Centre.

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“Without doing any advertising, the clinic is packed every single second Saturday,” he said, adding that it operates thanks to volunteers.

Rico-Martinez, who was attending a roundtable discussion hosted by the Liberal party on Friday, added that universal health care in Canada is a myth.

“It’s so painful to see the system making categories of people,” he said.

The roundtable discussion followed a July 4 Federal Court ruling against the Harper government’s changes to health-care coverage for refugee claimants.

Justice Anne Mactavish called the government cuts “cruel and unusual” treatment.

The reduced medical benefits for newcomers left most with basic and essential care, but without supplementals such as vision and dental care.

Meanwhile rejected refugee claimants, or those from countries deemed safe by the government, can only receive health care if they pose a threat to public health.

In Mactavish’s ruling, she determined that this violates a section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and also stated that the categories create two different tiers of health care for refugees.

The ruling — which the government has said it plans to appeal — was suspended for four months.

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Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander cited taxpayer interests as one of the reasons why the government will appeal, adding that refugee claimants can access health care through other programs.

At the roundtable discussion, Liberal immigration critic John McCallum said the July 4 decision acts in the interest of “basic human decency.”

He called the Tories’ economic justification for the cuts “irrational.”

“They are actually costing the taxpayer money because of forcing people to go into emergency health care,” he said.

Rico-Martinez, 56, who fled El Salvador with his wife and children in 1990 and was granted refugee status in Canada, said the national narrative surrounding refugees is changing, evidenced by the federal government’s focus on cost-saving measures.

“The cuts affect me directly, personally, because I’ve experienced what Canada was 24 years ago and what it’s becoming,” he said, adding that the cutbacks make him frustrated. “I feel even angry sometimes.”

Rico-Martinez, who was trained as a lawyer in El Salvador, said he previously worked with internally-displaced peoples in El Salvador and noticed the stark contrast in social services when he arrived in Canada.

“The system here was amazing,” he said, adding that education, housing and health care were all within reach upon entering the country.

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But it’s a different reality for refugees arriving in Canada now, he said.

Ilamaran Nagarasa, 37, fled Sri Lanka in 2009 by making his way to Thailand and taking a harrowing 45-day ocean voyage to Victoria.

“At one time, I was thinking of ending my life and jumping into the sea,” he said, adding that it was “a journey without a map.”

“One day we saw the Canadian airplane with a maple leaf,” he said.

Nagarasa, who was a journalist in Sri Lanka, said he was finally granted refugee status last year, but his wife and 10-year-old daughter are still in Sri Lanka.

He spoke to the difficulties of navigating the health-care system, having paid out-of-pocket for health care until 2011 when he was accepted into the Interim Federal Health Program, which provides limited, temporary coverage for certain people who aren’t eligible for provincial or territorial health insurance.

Last year Nagarasa said he was granted a provincial health card.

“Myself, I can say this is not Canada, the Canada that respects all human rights law,” he said. “If people are coming to Canada as refugees, they don’t have any support.”

Ayan Yusuf works at the Community Action Resource Centre, where she helps new refugees to Canada settle and navigate the system.

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She said she has clients who are unable to access services, and a lack of health care will hinder someone’s ability to build a life, seek employment and find housing.

Yusuf said one of her current clients is diabetic and without treatment, working is difficult.

“He needs to see a doctor, a specialist,” she said, adding that he receives no health-care coverage.

Yusuf, who arrived in Canada more than two decades ago as a Somali refugee, said the health-care cuts are just one layer of the problem.

“What’s the use of bringing someone here, and saying, OK this is Canada, enjoy it?” she said. “This person doesn’t know how to speak English, fill out an application, go to legal aid, find housing.

“The sad thing is we’re not talking about individuals, we’re talking about families.”

A Liberal spokeswoman said the party plans to host more roundtable discussions across the country to solicit feedback on refugee health-care issues.