Refugee Protection and Human Rights: Nothing Bogus About It

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

Watch the video of Alex Neve’s CIPS talk: Protecting Refugees: It’s a human rights issue

The lambasting that Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews received from federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander last week about refugee health care was despairingly illustrative of a major public policy deficit when it comes to refugees: how rarely their plight and their needs are recognized and acknowledged as being grounded in human rights. The ease, or callous willingness, with which governments fail (or refuse) to accord refugees their rights is the subject I will be exploring in my CIPS talk.

The refugee health care debacle in Canada is but one of countless examples of laws and policies that leave human rights obligations off the table when dealing with refugees. In many parts of the world, the consequences can be extreme, including lengthy imprisonment and death. Lost in the debates is a clear recognition that protecting refugees is more than a matter of humanitarian impulse, budgetary decisions or border control.

There are important rights on the line—including rights related to health care, refugee protection and freedom from discrimination—laid out in numerous binding treaties that Canada signed on to decades ago. 

At its very heart, refugee protection is an essential matter of human rights. Refugees flee because of human rights violations. They experience further violations while fleeing. And their desire and need to return home in safety or rebuild a new life elsewhere is all about human rights. There is a detailed and long-established human rights framework that should and must be at the heart of every choice and every decision governments take when it comes to refugee protection. But when it comes to refugees, governments are more than willing to disregard those obligations.

The current ministerial spat has its origins in the federal government’s decision two years ago to slash significantly its longstanding refugee health care program. All refugee claimants were cut off from coverage for medication, vision and dental care. But going further, refugee claimants coming from countries on the Minister’s list of so-called ‘safe’ countries of origin are cut off from any health care, except if they are a public health risk. It doesn’t matter if they face death themselves; the federal government will only cover their health care needs if they are a risk to the health of others. It is worth noting that the list includes countries like Mexico, which Amnesty International describes as being in the midst of a spiralling human rights crisis, and numerous central European countries where Roma communities endure widespread discrimination and frequent violence.

What brought on the public scolding was Ontario’s decision to step in and ensure that those refugee claimants cut off from the health care they need are not left to suffer and can access treatment. Minister Matthews also made it clear she’d be sending the bill to Ottawa (not that she likely expects to see that account settled quickly). Ontario follows several other provinces which have done similarly.These provincial decisions to spend extra money in a time of fiscal restraint and budget-cutting are commendable.

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There are important rights on the line—including rights related to health care, refugee protection and freedom from discrimination—laid out in numerous binding treaties that Canada signed on to decades ago. 

But Minister Alexander certainly didn’t exhibit any concern about this being a human rights matter. He chided Minister Matthews for stepping into federal jurisdiction (which is at best a debatable claim, given that the federal government may be responsible for immigrants and refugees but provincial governments are responsible for health). But that is beside the point. What matters is protecting rights, not picking a constitutional squabble.

He also contended Ontario’s move was objectionable because it interfered with the federal government’s reform agenda, which is focused on clamping down on ‘bogus’ refugees. And here we have yet another dangerous instance of a senior political figure irresponsibly bandying about the inflammatory notion of bogus refugees, in ways calculated to erode public concern or sympathy for their plight. He referred to it with such certainty that the public would be forgiven for concluding that bogus refugees must be a well-established legal category, laid out and precisely defined in international treaties and national laws.

It is not. It is a pejorative, empty term which really has no other meaning than the refugees we do not want to accept: because they told a lie; because they come from a country we like or travelled using means we don’t like; because they didn’t have an up-to-date passport, committed a crime, had a claim that didn’t fit the technicalities of the refugee definition or applied for welfare; or because the harm they fled is about jobs and enough food to eat, not imprisonment and torture.


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Some of those situations may be reasons to deport someone, maybe even to send them to jail. Others should lead to compassion not scorn. None justify violating rights.

It is a cruel trend growing around the world. Over the past two years, I have joined two Amnesty International research missions looking into what unleashed a terrifying assault on a displaced persons camp in western Côte d’Ivoire in July 2012. More than ten people were killed, countless others injured, and at least 4,000 displaced people were once again uprooted because the camp was set on fire and razed to the ground. It was a human rights tragedy with many causes. But one, most certainly, was months of public vilification of the displaced population. Public officials accused them of being responsible for every social ill around: crime, cheating the system and being a public health risk. Just like the term ‘bogus’, it was ugly rhetoric without substance or fact. And it was deadly rhetoric that set the stage for human rights violations.

Ministerial spats about refugee health care in Canada clearly occur in a very different context than frenzied violence in a displaced persons camp in west Africa. But the cautionary reminder is the same.Refugees have rights. Refugees are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. No amount of bogus rhetoric changes those facts.

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