Who has the right to health? Refugees, health care, and the politics of exclusion

Post by former CYH blog team member Jannie.


How soon we forget that we were all once migrants to this land (except, of course, the indigenous peoples). The recent changes to Canadian refugee policy further erase this shared history, pitting the native-born against newcomers and privileging certain migrant groups over others.

On June 30, 2012, the federal government made drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which provides health care to refugees and refugee claimants. The IFHP cuts are intimately tied to the recent federal legislation Bill C-31 (popularly known as the Refugee Exclusion Act), which will create an immigration system that discriminates against refugee claimants based on their nationality. Those fleeing from countries deemed “safe” by the government will not be considered legitimate refugees and will not receive health coverage, except in health emergencies that pose a risk to public health or public safety.

Refugees do not willingly choose to leave their homes; they are forced to leave as a result of a number of factors, including war, environmental disasters, severe unemployment, etc. It is destructive ignorance to assume that a country can be “safe” for everyone living in it, and that some are more deserving of health care than others because of where they are from.

Without health coverage, these refugees will no longer be covered for doctors’ visits, laboratory and diagnostic services, medication and treatment, hospital care, and other essential health services. Those with diabetes will no longer be provided insulin, pregnant women will no longer be eligible for prenatal care. Undiagnosed and untreated, health conditions risk medical complications that risk hospital emergency rooms.

Responses to the IFHP cuts have been varied and divisive. Many national associations of health professionals – who have traditionally steered clear of politics – have openly opposed the cuts: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, dentists, optometrists, among others. At its worst, reactions have been xenophobic and racist, arguing that refugees should not be provided health services that even Canadian citizens cannot receive.

The divide and conquer strategy is the oldest trick in the book. But rather than asking who has the right to health in Canada, we need to be asking why there is so little money in the government budget for health care. The government will squander $29 billion on fighter jets and spends $10 billion on corporate tax cuts annually, but apparently cannot provide even the most basic healthcare to everyone in the country. Refugees pay taxes towards this public budget and have been fundamental pillars of creating, fostering and enriching our communities in so many ways.

Instead of asking who has the right to stay in Canada, we need to be asking what Canada’s role is in creating refugees. Canada’s contributions to international wars bomb civilians out of their homes, Canada’s free trade agreements devastate countless livelihoods, Canada’s mining companies appropriate and pollute the land, air, water of others. Refugee rights is an issue of justice. Just as Canada is complicit in forcing refugees from their land, Canada cannot privilege the health of older generations of migrants over the newer.

A grassroots organization, Sanctuary Health: United for Refugee and Migrant Health, has formed in response to the IFHP cuts and Bill C-31. As health workers and migrants and community members, together we challenge these politics of division and promote a counter-narrative of our interconnected realities. We always welcome new members and support; please visit the website for more details.