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September 11, 2014

Judge calls Canada's refugee policy cruel

Reuel S. Amdur

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The decision by Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish throws a spanner in the wheels of the Harper government's attack on refugees.

While the decision in this case brought by Doctors for Refugee Care specifically addresses the right of failed refugee claimants to obtain health care, the complicated regulations on access to care affect various classes of refugees. 

For example, Syrian refugees sponsored by the government are eligible for coverage, but at this writing those sponsored by a church or other private organization are not.  It will be interesting to see if the government changes that.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander argues, “Thanks to fewer unfounded asylum claims, we’ve already saved $600 million on health and social benefits, with an anticipated savings of $1.5 billion over five years.”  This is nonsense.  If people are unable to get basic care through outpatient treatment, they will, as their condition worsens, be forced to clog up hospital emergency departments.  There the cost will be higher.

Mactavish struck down the Harper government’s policy on two grounds: it discriminates between claimants from countries deemed to be safe and those from other countries, and it subjects people to “cruel and unusual treatment.”  These “safe” countries include Hungary, where the racist anti-Semitic and anti-Roma Jobbik party received over 20% of the vote in the last election and where thugs who largely support Jobbik terrorize the Roma. 

So let’s turn to “cruel and unusual.”  Mactavish applied this phrase to what the policy does to, among others, “innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks conscience and outrages our standards of decency.”  She also made reference to adults listed in the doctors’ brief presented to the Court: a diabetic unable to get insulin, pregnant women needing prenatal care, and so on.  Yes, Justice Mactavish, Harper’s policies do indeed shock the conscience and outrage our standards of decency.

She goes further, hinting as to motive: scapegoating.  The Harper bunch “perpetuates the stereotypical view that they are cheats and queue-jumpers, that their refugee claims are ‘bogus,’ and that they came to Canada to abuse the generosity of Canadians.”

It is time for a little light on who the failed refugee claimants are.  Here are the stories of three, each with his or her own story but all of whom fell afoul of the same refugee judge, Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan.

Samsu Mia is a Muslim who was employed as a servant by a Bangladeshi diplomat.  He fled from his employer in Ottawa because he was being overworked, cheated out of his wages, and physically assaulted.

Maoua Diomande was a school teacher in the Ivory Coast.  She was working with children of families whose origins were from Burkina Faso.  She helped the mothers to organize a vegetable plot to earn a bit of money for the school and to improve their situation.  The military junta that had seized power was, in her words, “xenophobic,” especially where the Burkinabé were concerned.  To teach her a lesson, the army sent troops to her town to gang-rape her and her niece.

Moti Nano comes from a Lutheran family in Ethiopia.  He was employed by a Lutheran organization as a human rights worker, not a particularly auspicious calling in that country.  To make his situation even more precarious, he is a member of the Oromo ethnic group, which is viewed by the government with suspicion and hostility.  For his efforts, he suffered imprisonment and torture.  He attended a human rights conference in Montreal, and when he learned that people from back home were looking for him in Montreal, he decided it was time to defect.

Azhar Ali Khan decided that Mia’s situation was simply a labor-management dispute.  That in spite of the fact that Amnesty International cited a case in Bangladesh where a man who complained about an official’s corrupt behavior was imprisoned.  And in spite of the fact that when word got back to Bangladesh that Mia was making his accusations, his son was dragged out of class by a thug and viciously beaten.

He simply did not believe either Diomande or Moti.  Diomande later obtained medical evidence from the Ivory Coast supporting her story, but that was after Azhar Ali Khan had ruled against her claim.

All three found sanctuary in churches, Mia in Ottawa’s main Unitarian Church, Moti in All Saints, the Lutheran Church of which he was a member, and Diomande, a Catholic, in l’Eglise du Sacré-Coeur.  There they remained till they were allowed to stay in Canada. 

Then-Minister Judy Sgro went personally to the Unitarian Church and told Mia that he was free to remain and bring his family.  She had been lobbied by fellow Liberal MP Marlene Catterall and by Ed Broadbent.  Liberal MP Mauril Belanger assisted Diomande by focusing on the language issue.  Her refugee hearing had been in English, a language in which she had limited ability, while she had the right to be heard in French.  Confronted with this defect in the process, the government abandoned the effort to force her to leave.  All Saints activists and other supporters convinced Immigration to reverse itself and let Nano stay.

Nano and Diomande took up personal care work, with the sick, elderly, and infirm.  Mia and his family opened an Indian restaurant.  What would Ferguson say about these failed refugee claimants?  Of course there are a number of others with their own tales of misery and despair.  For Ferguson, the answer is to deprive all of them of access to health care.  Make them suffer.  That will teach them.  As Mactavish so accurately put it, “cruel.” 

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