Some refugees and asylum-seekers come to Canada saddled with debt and without full access to health care — and some don’t.
Which one you are depends on where you’re from and when you got here.
The federal government’s highly publicized Syrian refugee resettlement initiative, a scaled-down version of a Liberal campaign promise, has made for teary airport reunions and galvanized Canadians across the country to help welcome more than 10,000 people making their new home here.
But it’s also created a stark disparity between different groups of refugees.
Refugees who’ve come to Canada under the feds’ Syrian refugee program get full coverage under the Interim Federal Health Program.
All other refugees are still subject to cuts imposed by the Conservative government three years ago — cuts the Liberals pledged to reverse but haven’t.
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Refugees who’ve come to Canada under the feds’ Syrian refugee program don’t have to repay the cost of their flight or their initial health exams.
All other refugees do — with interest.
They’re lucky: A donor has come forward to cover the tab.
Most refugees aren’t, said Hospitality House’s executive director Karin Gordon: They’re thousands of dollars in debt the moment they set foot on Canadian soil.
“It’s really really hard. And it destroys their credit rating.”
As a refugee sponsor, Gordon has also found herself on the hook for the health expenses of hundreds of new Canadians: A Burmese man with dangerously high blood sugar. A young Somali woman with an agonizing abscessed tooth. People with parasites colonizing their intestines. Amputees in need of prosthetics.
They all used to be covered. For Syrian refugees, they still are.
“It raises, at best, confusion. But also a sense of injustice,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Her group has heard from Syrian refugees who came to Canada in October, are struggling to repay loans and don’t understand why fellow Syrians who arrived a month later don’t have to.
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The disparity’s also prompted some uncomfortable questions from Somali, Eritrean, Sudanese and Congolese refugees.
“We’ve heard from African refugees whose situation is just as compelling as Syrian refugees’ and yet there’s not the same measures for them,” she said.
“And that does lead to people asking, what that says about Canadians’ concerns.”
Human displacement is at its highest point ever, according to the UNHCR: One of every 122 people on the planet are either refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum.
And while Syria’s the biggest single source of refugees, Afghanistan and Somalia aren’t far behind, with 2.6 million and 1.1 million displaced persons, respectively.
Canada resettles as many as 20,000 refugees a year, from all over the world.
Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Minister John McCallum said last week he’s considering waiving those “transportation loans” for all refugees, but hasn’t decided yet.
Advocates have long called for the program to be ended; they argue it burdens newcomers with thousands of dollars in debt before they even arrive in Canada, and make it much more difficult for them to integrate economically and become financially self-sufficient.
“We don’t think anybody should be paying them. We think it’s a very poor policy,” Dench said.
“It undermines the efforts of people to get off to a good start.”
Last month McCallum said restoring health care for all refugees could only be done following a January cabinet meeting. But in the wake of a weekend cabinet retreat in New Brunswick, a Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson confirmed to Global News that nothing has changed: The government plans to restore health care for all refugees but can’t say when that will happen.
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Doctors have noted this is a public health and public finance issue as much as a humanitarian one: It’s bad for everyone when sick people don’t get treated early especially if their diseases are infectious.
And when people delay treatment they often end up in emergency departments — costing taxpayers more and exacerbating a clogged urgent-care system.
And Canada’s refugee health patchwork has become so confusing that many health practitioners have thrown up their hands. They don’t treat refugees at all, Dench said.
“A lot of people say they can’t get coverage: They’ll go to a health care provider and they’ll say, ‘Sorry, we’re not taking you,'” she said.
“We may know this person is covered but the healthcare providers, a lot of them are confused. … When the criteria are so complicated, it’s much more likely people are going to fall through the cracks.”
The inequity among refugees is evidence the Liberals made a shortsighted election promise they didn’t know how to keep, says Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel.
“There really hasn’t been a plan to deal with the reality of successfully implementing an initiative of this scale,” she said.
“It’s almost like [the Liberals have] patched some sort of an aircraft, they’ve kind of gotten it off the ground and all the parts are falling apart.”
Rempel also criticized the numbers game political parties played during the campaign, resulting in the Liberals’ lofty (and unrealized) 25,000 2015 goal.
“It was unfortunate politics,” she said.
“I think it was wrong to campaign that way when it was clearly, clearly unattainable.”
Rempel said she doesn’t have enough information to weigh in on the refugee health care issue, and defended the “very generous” transportation loan program.
NDP critic Jenny Kwan said the feds should have stopped saddling refugees with debt long ago.
“The Liberals are creating a two-tier system of refugees,” she said.
“They need to move forward and eliminate this inequality. … These are not issues that can sit and wait.”
Make no mistake, Gordon thinks Canada’s commitment to Syrian refugees is admirable.
“They’re being incredibly compassionate to Syrians, which is lovely to see. But they’re ignoring the plight of refugees elsewhere around the world,” she said.
“Thousands of people have been drowning every year in the Mediterrannean. But nobody even noticed until the picture of that little Kurdish boy became broadcast internationally.”
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