JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

January 14, 2013

After the Epiphany, the Holy Family became refugees. The Gospel of Matthew reports that after the visit of the Magi, an angel appeared to Joseph and warned him to flee to Egypt.

Indeed, Joseph's escape preserved the life of his family when King Herod initiated a vicious massacre of innocent babes in a paranoid attempt to preserve his throne and power.

The UN reports that there are more than 12 million refugees in the world today, 80 per cent of whom are women and children. Canada plans to resettle about 14,500 refugees this year - a tiny portion of those in need. Some 31,000 people remain in the processing queue overseas.

Canada encourages private sponsorship of refugees (5,500 in 2012) and many churches have signed agreements with the federal government to be able to receive and settle refugees. But the government has decided to expose Canada's over 80 sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs), and in many cases their sponsoring churches, to greater financial risk - thus hindering the effectiveness of ministry to refugees.

About 18 Catholic dioceses are SAHs. After December's National Catholic Conference on Resettlement, in Toronto, these diocesan groups are considering joining together to have one powerful voice on refugee issues.

Some have joined other SAHs in expressing disfavour about Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's "monumental change, with little notice and no consultation" to the Interim Federal Health Care Program (IFHP.)

The IFHP was (since 1957) designed for refugee claimants who were not covered by provincial health plans, nor private insurance. Governments recognized that refugee claimants who leave horrific situations can accumulate catastrophic medical costs.

I remember receiving refugees in Saskatchewan who had arrived from the Pinochet dictatorship's torture chambers in Chile. Many of these refugees needed extensive dental work and medical attention, and some needed counseling. Canada provided the care that was needed, and these families went on to successfully integrate into their local economies and communities.

KENNEY'S CUTS

On June 30, 2012, however, amid the protests of health care providers, Kenney implemented severe cuts to the IFHP. Two classes of resettled refugees now exist - those provided with needed medical care, and those who are not. According to an August letter from eight SAHs, including the Office for Refugees of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, this action has "significantly increased" the liability of sponsors. It could also limit the ability of Church groups, among others, to accept new sponsorships.

Several senior Church leaders have publicly written to the federal government to ask that these cuts be rescinded, including Anglican Primate Fred Hiltz, Lutheran Bishop Michael Pryce, and Presbyterian General Secretary Rev. Rick Fee.

Other churches, such as the Christian Reformed, Quaker and the United churches, as well as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, have prepared information and asked their members to write their MPs with the demand to reconsider the IFHP cuts.

Groups like Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care have been far more vocal than the churches on this issue. Catholic doctors have spoken out.

The government of Saskatchewan expressed its outrage when a refugee was denied chemotherapy - and then the premier covered the treatment.

Most interestingly, the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, a Winnipeg-based NGO, along with the Anglican Diocese of Rupert's Land, is suing Ottawa for breach of contract regarding the cuts to the IFHP.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg has expressed support for this court case, even as the bishops themselves have made no public plea.

Five refugee ministries (Romero House, Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, FCJ Refugee Centre, The Mustard Seed and Becoming Neighbours) encouraged their bishops to challenge the minister on cuts to refugee health care. Minister Kenney met with the bishops at their annual plenary in September, ostensibly to discuss visa requirements for foreign priests. Some bishops were able to question the minister, but the results of the off-the-record session are unknown.

TIME TO MOBILIZE

On two occasions last month I was asked why the faith communities have not effectively mobilized our memberships to create the necessary change. After all, these cuts touch their financial viability as well as their ministerial priorities.

I wonder if the attitudes and actions of Christian communities towards newcomers would be different today if we stopped to realize that the God we worship is none other than Jesus, the refugee.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)