Federal Court rules against health care cuts for refugees

The court says cuts constitute “cruel and unusual” treatment

OTTAWA – The Federal Court has ruled Ottawa’s cutbacks to health-care coverage for refugee claimants constitute “cruel and unusual” treatment — particularly to children — and should be struck down.

“This is particularly, but not exclusively so as it affects children who have been brought to this country by their parents,” Justice Anne Mactavish wrote in a decision released Friday.

“The 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency.

“They violate Section 12 of the Charter.”

Mactavish also said that the changes announced two years ago create two tiers of health coverage between refugees who are from designated countries of origin and those who are not.

“Moreover, this distinction has an adverse differential effect on refugee claimants from designated countries of origin,” Mactavish wrote.

“It 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.

“It serves to perpetuate the historical disadvantage suffered by members of an admittedly vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged group.”

The judge suspended the effect of the ruling for four months.

The government cuts were challenged by a coalition including refugee lawyers and a doctors’ group. They welcomed the ruling.

“This decision gives life to Canada’s commitment to protect refugee rights,” said Lorne Waldman, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “It sends a clear message to government that it cannot abdicate its responsibility to meet the most basic health care needs of vulnerable refugees and refugee claimants.”

Ottawa trimmed medical benefits for newcomers in 2012, leaving most immigrants with basic, essential health care but without supplementals such as vision and dental care.

However, rejected refugee claimants — and refugee claimants from countries the government considers safe — will be eligible for care only when they pose a threat to public health.

Government lawyers argued the new rules bring health benefits for newcomers in line with what other Canadians receive and deter those who would abuse the health-care system.

Refugee claimants can still access health care through other programs, the lawyers argued, including those put in place by some provinces to reinstate access to essential and emergency care.

However, not all provinces offer the same level of coverage.

The federal Conservative government criticized Ontario for reinstating the benefits on Jan. 1, accusing the province of intruding into an area of federal responsibility.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has called Ontario’s move a “reckless” policy that threatened the success of reforms to the refugee system.

He was not immediately available for comment Friday.

Government lawyers previously told the court that striking down the changes would “result in a policy vacuum” that could endanger refugee claimants as well as public safety.

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