Court rules federal cuts to refugee health care "cruel and unusual”, unfair to children

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A court has ruled that federal cuts to refugees’ health care constitute “cruel and unusual” treatment in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a lengthy written decision released July 4, Federal Court judge Anne Mactavish argued that new regulations enacted by the Conservative government in 2012 were especially unfair to children brought to Canada by their parents.

“The 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program [IFHP] 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,” she wrote. “They violate section 12 of the Charter.”

The court found the 2012 changes to the IFHP also violate section 15 of the charter, which states that every individual is equal under the law with equal protections and equal benefits.

The Conservative’s regulations effectively created two classes of refugees with two different sets of rules for the administration of health-care services. Government-sponsored refugees see health-care costs covered by Ottawa until they are eligible for provincial coverage (as they did before the changes took effect). The new class of refugees—people from countries the federal government describes as “safe”—only receive coverage for medical costs in the event of a public-health emergency.

The court found this two-tiered system clashes with the charter’s provision stating that individuals should not be discriminated against based on race, national, or ethnic origin.

“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 2012 cuts were challenged in court by Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and Justice for Children and Youth. Those groups are scheduled to hold a press conference later today.

The federal government argued that health-care costs for refugee claimants had ballooned in recent years, and that the cuts were aimed at individuals it argued were abusing the system.

Ottawa has been given four months to address the court’s concerns. It can also appeal the Federal Court’s decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

A number of Conservative rules have been taken to court in recent years.

Most recently, on June 25, a Toronto lawyer launched a court challenge against controversial changes to the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act. Lawyers with Pivot Legal Society are fighting a Health Canada regulation that bans B.C. doctors from providing select patients with prescription heroin. Pivot is also challenging mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug dealers. And it’s expected that proposed prostitution laws targeting the clients of sex workers could soon become the subject of a constitutional challenge.

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