In the midst of the current brouhaha around the Harper government's effective cancellation of the interim federal health program for refugees, a major paradox is flying under the public's radar.
As health-care professionals -- doctors, dentists, pharmacists -- raise their protests in letters, interviews and even demonstrations, the popular focus is all on the plight of refugee claimants. These are the people who have arrived on our shores (usually at our international airports) and claimed refugee status. There were about 25,000 of these last year. Few arrive in Manitoba.
Canada's pugilistic minister of immigration, Jason Kenney is able to set up his usual man of straw, the "bogus refugee," in order to deflect criticism from his government's removal of the interim federal health coverage from many needy refugee claimants.
What is being missed in all of this is that the same removal of vital health care coverage applies also to government-assisted refugees (GARs) and privately sponsored refugees (PSRs).
For the government's own choices, the GARs, this is puzzling -- a paradox. Sometimes these refugees are chosen for resettlement here (on the UNHCR's recommendation) precisely because they have medical needs. Once here, they have one year's federal financial support at essentially the local welfare rate. But unlike Manitoba's others on social assistance who have this medical coverage, these GARs will now have no access to drugs, emergency dental care, eyeglasses and the like -- unless the province decides to pick up the ball the Harper government has dropped by cancelling this aspect of the IFH program.
These GARs, who are essentially federal government wards, will have no place to turn if they need medication for sickness. Welfare-like rates are parsimonious at best and afford little flexibility to pay for "extras" such as drugs or the dentist. Agencies such as Winnipeg's Welcome Place that are funded to provide counselling and resettlement assistance to these refugees, have no extra money for their drugs or toothaches. One has to wonder if the Harper government recognized this effect of the IFH cancellation when they did it, or if this was but a brutal challenge to the provinces in an ongoing drive to offload another federal responsibility -- with vulnerable refugees as the bargaining chips
More than 500 government-assisted refugees arrive in Winnipeg each year as negotiated between Ottawa and Broadway. Probably three times as many privately sponsored refugees will arrive in Winnipeg in 2012. Like the GARs, they and their sponsors are similarly affected by the cancellation of the IFH.
At least these privately sponsored refugees have a fallback position. One would hope those who sponsored them here will be able to afford this unexpected new expense.
Since it usually takes three or more years for a privately sponsored refugee to be processed by Canada overseas and get here, one has to wonder whether the contractual responsibilities undertaken at the outset by the sponsor and by Ottawa can now be unilaterally changed by the Harper government, to the detriment of the unwitting sponsor.
There has to be a political risk in all of this. The private sponsors of refugees have had the IFH rug pulled out from under them.
Who are these sponsors? In Manitoba they are principally the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, the Anglican Diocese of Rupert's Land, the two Roman Catholic Archdioceses (Winnipeg and St. Boniface), the Mennonite Central Committee, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, Calvary Temple, the North End Sponsorship Team (United and Lutheran churches), First Presbyterian Church, and Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.
Manitoba refugee sponsors are collectively the largest sponsors of refugees in Canada. The sponsorships they have undertaken, with refugees still to arrive, total in the thousands. This seems a formidable constituency to offend by saddling them with a liability they never expected.
More fallout from this latest federal blow can be expected.
Tom Denton is executive director for sponsorship at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.