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Threatened with torture abroad, faced with limited health coverage in Canada

HALIFAX – A refugee fled his native Uganda for Canada after he was threatened with torture for his human rights activism, but he is facing another battle in this country: limited healthcare coverage for refugee claimants.

John, 35, arrived in Halifax in early April. He was forced to flee because the Uganda government was displeased with his work advocating for children’s rights, women’s rights and gay rights. He says the decision was hard to make but he did not have a choice. (John is a pseudonym used by Global News to protect his identity for his family’s safety.)

“I came to Canada because I had to come, in order to be alive,” he said simply.

He says he picked Canada over countries such as the United States and Britain because of its human rights record.

But now John says he’s frustrated and grappling with limited health benefits for refugee claimants like himself. Shortly after he arrived in Halifax, he came down with a throat infection. A doctor prescribed medication but since he does not have a work permit, he did not have the money to pay for the prescription and the government no longer covers medication for refugee claimants. He was forced to turn to the Halifax Refugee Clinic to help him pay for the drugs.

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“Halifax is now my home. You want to feel at home but when you get cut in the medical care, it becomes a little difficult.”

“Refugee claimants come to Canada because you want to feel safe. Then when you reach Canada and you can’t get medical care, it’s really frustrating,” he said.

In June 2012, the federal government announced it was making cuts to health coverage for refugee claimants. Previously, claimants received access to physicians, lab testing and diagnostic services as well as medication, dental care and vision care.

But the cuts now mean refugee claimants from countries considered “safe” by the federal government, defined as respecting human rights and where an individual would not be persecuted, do not receive any health coverage, including access to physicians, except in instances where public health or public safety is threatened. Refugee claimants from countries that do not have that designation, which includes Uganda, still have physician access and lab and diagnostic testing; however they do not receive medication coverage, vision care or dental care.

The initial announcement created an uproar and last year, a National Day of Action Against Cuts to Refugee Health Care was held in major cities across the country. A similar protest will take place Monday across Canada; the event In Halifax will be held at 12:30 p.m. in the Grand Parade.

The Halifax Refugee Clinic is organizing the local protest. Gillian Zubizarreta, settlement coordinator at the clinic, says the cuts to refugee claimants like John are outrageous and a denial of human rights.

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“They’re cruel. They’re inhumane. They’re discriminatory,” she said.

The federal government argues the move will save millions of dollars and is meant to deter refugees from entering the country to exploit its healthcare system.

In a statement to Global News, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada said:

“Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those truly in need. Canadians have been clear that they do not want illegal immigrants and bogus asylum claimants receiving free, gold-plated health care benefits that are better than those that Canadian taxpayers and seniors receive.”

However, not everyone agrees that the move is cost-cutting or will be beneficial to Canadians.

“Cutting the preventative and primary care can lead to situations where people end up in the emergency room, which is very costly,” said Zubizarreta.

“The cost can also get downloaded to the provinces and territories and then to community groups like us.”

Zubizarreta says that the Halifax Refugee Clinic has been aiding between 20 to 30 refugee claimants like John with their medical costs. But she adds that the organization does not have the budget for it and is only making ends meet by fundraising and appealing to the provincial government.

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Both Zubizarreta and John hope the federal government re-instate full healthcare benefits to all categories of refugee and refugee claimants, but unless that happens claimants like

John will have to make due with their situation in the place they now call home.

“He’s been through a lot of trauma. He’s been tortured. He needs this care,” Zubizarreta said.

“I don’t have any solution. At the moment, your hands are tied,” John said.

This story has been modified from its original version to protect the identities of those involved.

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