By TOM GODFREY
Refugees and those fleeing to Canada with their lives may soon be receiving health care coverage pending a legal challenge by the federal government.
The Federal Court of Canada last week ruled that cuts to an Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) were against the Charter and jeopardized the health and lives of refugees.
The IFHP provided limited health care for claimants as they awaited processing in Canada. It was gutted in 2012 by the Conservative government, which cut back health benefits to new arrivals.
Rejected refugee claimants, as well as claimants from so-called “safe countries”, could only access care if they posed a public health risk.
The cuts to the program were appealed by the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and Justice for Children and Youth.
Lawyers for the groups argued the reductions denied life-saving medications such as insulin and cardiac drugs to “impoverished refugee claimants from war-torn countries as Afghanistan and Iraq”.
The cuts also denied “basic pre-natal, obstetrical and pediatric care to women and children seeking the protection of Canada from ‘safe countries’ as Mexico and Hungary.
“The effect of these changes is to deny funding for any medical care to individuals seeking refuge in Canada even if they suffer from a health condition that poses a risk to the public health and safety of Canadians,” the groups claimed.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Ottawa will appeal the court decision.
Judge Anne Mactavish said in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms there are guarantees to life, liberty and “security of the person do not include a positive right to state funding for health care.
“The intentional targeting of an admittedly poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged group for adverse treatment takes this situation beyond the realm of traditional Charter challenges to social benefit programs,” Mactavish wrote.
She said “this treatment is ‘cruel and unusual’ and affects children who have been brought to this country by their parents”.
The changes were made to “make the lives of these disadvantaged individuals even more difficult than they already are in an effort to force those who have sought the protection of this country to leave Canada more quickly, and to deter others from coming here,” the decision said.
It said the cuts “puts their lives at risk and perpetuates the stereotypical view that they are cheats and queue-jumpers, that their refugee claims are ‘bogus’, and that they have come to Canada to abuse the generosity of Canadians”.
The decision cites a refugee claimant from Afghanistan, who works as a dishwasher, and is unable to pay for his diabetic medicine and is being kept alive by free samples of insulin from a community health centre.
It highlighted another claimant from Colombia who went blind because he could not afford to pay $10,000 for eye surgery that was not covered by the program.
The court gave the government four months to change federal cuts to refugee health care. It also threatened to strike down the changes.
The decision was welcomed by the Canadian Council for Refugees, who said the cuts jeopardize the health of refugees.
The council is calling on Ottawa to reinstate the IFHP as it existed before the cuts.
We “are acutely aware of the wide-ranging and devastating impacts of the cuts on refugees and others seeking Canada’s protection,” the group said in a statement.
Amnesty International officials said they have “previously expressed concern that changes to the program were discriminatory and likely to result in violations of the right to health of refugees in Canada”.
No date has been set for an appeal.