Healthcare cuts hurt many refugees, says NGO

A young boy at the Shimelba Camp, Ethiopia, which hosts Eritrean refugees displaced by the 1998-2000 war. After years in exile, some are resettled by a UN refugee agency in countries like Canada. Photo: John Lavall
Published July 5, 2012

A church-backed NGO that sponsors refugees said that while the federal government has back-pedaled on the issue of healthcare cuts for some refugees, it still doesn’t resolve the issue for many others, including those privately sponsored by parishes and churches.

On the eve of the cut’s implementation on June 30, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) amended information on its website so that exemptions would be made for government-sponsored refugees and privately sponsored refugees who receive federal financial assistance.

Tom Denton, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, said this would only apply to privately sponsored refugees under the new visa-office referred program that CIC announced in April and not ones already in Canada. Even then, Denton said it is unclear how long such healthcare benefits would remain under this program, which provides federal financial assistance for the first six months of a refugee’s arrival, with the sponsors guaranteeing the next six.

Denton said Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, which receives funding from the Anglican diocese of Rupert’s Land and the Roman Catholic Archiepiscopal Corporation of Winnipeg, would pursue its legal action against CIC. “The case is going forward,” Denton said in an interview.

On June 26, the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry and the diocese of Rupert’s Land announced they would sue CIC for breach of contract following its decision to cut supplemental health care to refugees. “We have a contractual relationship with the government where we have certain obligations when we sponsor somebody and they have obligations as well, which includes the provision of the IFHP [Interim Federal Health Program],” said Denton in an interview.

Under such private sponsor agreements, sponsors pick up the cost for housing, clothing, food and transportation for refugees for a year, while the federal government pays for basic medical care and supplemental benefits such as dental and vision care, prescription drugs, prosthetics and devices to assist mobility, home care and long-term care, among others. Such agreements with private sponsors have been in place since 1979, until they were amended early this year, said Denton.

Losing the supplemental health benefits, which government estimates at $432 per person per year, means that Hospitality House Refugee Ministry would need to absorb the cost of $232,848 for the 539 refugees currently under its sponsorship. He noted that the average cost was for people with no extraordinary or debilitating health conditions. Just recently, his group had a case involving a Congolese refugee who arrived with one leg and a “crude” prosthesis on the other, which made it nearly impossible for him to walk and stand. He had been a victim of a machete attack. “We had a doctor look at him and it turned out that wasn’t his worst problem,” said Denton. “He had a stomach ulcer, which would have killed him at any moment if it had been perforated.” Fortunately, the ulcer was still treatable, but the medicine cost $200 a week. At the same time, the man had to have a new leg if he were to lead a normal life and get a job. He is now able to walk normally. “It’s like a miracle and it cost $10,000,” said Denton.

The man’s case illustrates just how important healthcare is for refugees, especially in their first year, added Denton. The number of refugees sponsored by Hospitality House Refugee Ministry varies from year to year. Last year, it sponsored 1,940 refugees, most of them under the “family-linked” sponsorships, meaning they were sponsored at the request of someone in Manitoba, who has agreed to support them as guarantor for their first year in Canada. Sponsors include refugees who have already been in Canada for two years, have permanent full-time jobs and are able to support the arriving refugee.

The plan to deny healthcare for refugees has been widely criticized not just by social activists but also health care workers across Canada, some of whom joined a protest rally dubbed National Day of Action June 18. Groups such as Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care are urging the government to rescind the changes, warning that lives could be at risk. There are refugee claimants who suffer from serious conditions such as heart disease and diabetes will no longer have medications under the revised rules, they cited.

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), an NGO advocating for the rights and protection of refugees in Canada and around the world, said the changes “unjustly discriminate against people in need and, worse, leave some people to suffer debilitating illnesses or to die without treatment.” In a statement, CCR President Wanda Yamamoto described the cuts as “mean-spirited.”

CIC Minister Jason Kenney has denied that the government intended to include government-assisted refugees in the cuts.

But Denton said that when refugee sponsors met with government representatives in May this issue had been discussed. “Some of them [government officials] were sick about it. They knew what a disaster it would be that it included even government-assisted refugees,” he said.

Some media outlets have noted that when changes to the IFHP were announced on April 25, the CIC press release said the changes would apply to “all current beneficiaries” and future refugee applicants.

Under the new rules asylum seekers from Ottawa’s yet-to-be announced “safe countries” and failed refugee claimants awaiting appeals and deportations will receive limited health benefits, and only when they have a condition that is deemed a threat to public health. Doctors said this could mean that children will not receive immunizations, and medicines for conditions like angina and asthma could be forbidden.

The government estimates that the cuts would save $100 million over the next five years.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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