Cuts will hinder refugee sponsorship, church warns

By on July 9, 2012

Providing refugees with healthcare gives them “a fighting chance” to have a fresh start, says Bishop Don Phillips, diocese of Rupert’s Land. Photo: Contributed

Federal cuts to refugee healthcare will deter church groups from sponsoring refugees, most of whom have significant medical needs, Anglican Church of Canada officials have warned.

“Clearly, it would cut down on the number of refugees that we are able to accept because church groups these days just don’t have the resources to pay [for medical care],” said Rupert’s Land bishop Don Phillips, whose diocese has been among the leading sponsor of refugees. [See related story ]

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and Adele Finney, executive director of The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), have sent a letter to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) Minister Jason Kenney expressing “deep concern” about the cuts to the Interim Federal Health program (IFHP).

The letter, dated May 30, noted that the “added financial burden” of medical costs that private sponsors will have to shoulder under the new rules comes at a time when the CIC is reducing its government-sponsored refugees target by 1,000 and shifting them to private sponsors under the new visa-office referred (VOR) cases.

Previously, private sponsors entered into an agreement with the CIC whereby they assumed the costs for food, shelter and transportation for their sponsored refugees for a year, while the government provided healthcare.

The IFHP has been “an important element of the compassion that Canada has offered to refugees and that Canadian Anglicans uphold,” said Hiltz and Finney in their letter. The changes will have “a detrimental impact” on the ability of churches to sponsor refugees. The Anglican Church of Canada was among the first to sign the Private Sponsorship Program when it was established in 1978, they noted. Through the agreements, held by 15 of 30 Anglican dioceses, Canadian Anglicans have given their “time, energy and significant financial resources” in welcoming refugees to Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada “takes very seriously the Biblical imperative to ‘welcome the stranger’ with compassion,” they added.

Under revised rules, which took effect June 30, only government-assisted refugees and privately sponsored refugees will have access to the IFHP. Church sponsored refugees are not included in this category, said Phillips.

On June 26, the diocese of Rupert’s Land and the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, which sponsors refugees with funds from the Anglican diocese of Rupert’s Land and the Roman Catholic Archiepiscopal Corporation of Winnipeg, announced plans to file a lawsuit against the federal government.

“What our basic claim is we’re treating those [sponsorship agreements] as legal contracts,” said Phillips. “Our basic action in court is to say that the government breached its own contract.”

Phillips said the diocese, which has sponsored over 2,000 refugees since the 1970s, wasn’t taking legal action “because we are necessarily anti-Harper government…we’re not trying to play heavy-handed with the government to make a name for ourselves.” Rather, it is with the sense of holding government accountable. “Somebody has to speak for [refugees] and we think even if you’re not crazy about the policy, there is a firm, legal, contractual argument here that government has reneged on,” he said.

The cuts were “a calculated political move” on the part of the Conservative government, said Phillips. The budget was trimmed where there would be “the least push back,” he said. “Clearly refugees themselves won’t have much standing to push back from and I think, unfortunately, it plays into the negative hearts of the average Canadian.”

Phillips said that he has received at least two emails against their lawsuit – from Anglicans outside his diocese – both of them senior citizens who do not have extended medical benefits. They complained how they have paid taxes throughout their working lives and asked, “Why should these people who just show up get stuff I don’t get?”

Phillips has written back saying that while they raise “some very valid concerns about gaps in the way we look after our own citizens and their healthcare,” the IFHP is for one year only, a time when refugees are “at their most vulnerable and most need the help to get on their feet.”

Even if Canadians come from a self-made work ethic, they have to consider the shape of refugees who arrive on Canadian shores and how helping them with medical needs will at least give them “a fighting chance” to establish new lives in Canada, he said. One year of supplemental health care “is very reasonable” and “hardly being over generous,” he said.

The other “fairly defensible” argument is that “we, in the First World, in many ways enjoy the lifestyle we do because people in the developing world don’t,” said Phillips. “We have had the luxuries that we’ve had, sometimes at the expense of workers in other countries.” The IFHP is “about the least we could do to at least share a bit of wealth for year to help one of our fellow human beings make a fresh start in our country.”

The IFHP, which is also provided to Canadians on social assistance, includes supplemental benefits such as dental and vision care, prescription drugs, prosthetics and devices to assist mobility, home care and long-term care, among others.

Phillips echoed the concerns raised by health workers that refugees who need serious medical care or pharmaceuticals won’t get them. “They will suffer and ultimately end up costing the healthcare system in the long run,” he said.

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