Controversial changes in Canada's refugee laws and policies have been very much in the news this summer. Bill C-31, a bill making it more difficult for those escaping persecution in their home countries to gain refugee status in Canada, received royal assent and became law at the end of June.
During the same week, recently announced changes in the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) took effect. These changes in the IFHP mean the loss of important health benefits for many refugees and those residing in Canada seeking refugee status. They also lay an added financial burden on faith congregations and other groups committed to sponsoring refugees seeking to make a new life in Canada.
The cuts to IFHP end coverage of most medications, diagnostic tests, eye care, dental services, and mobility aids for refugee applicants and many refugees.
In Canada, some refugees are sponsored directly by the federal government. The settlement and income support costs for the first year for these refugees are provided by the government.
Other refugees settling are supported through the Private Sponsorship Program where faith organizations and other humanitarian organizations commit to cover the settlement and income support costs for refugee families and individuals during their first year in Canada.
When the federal government first announced the funding cuts to the IFHP back in April, it said the cuts would apply to both government and privately sponsored refugees. After much public outcry, the government reversed itself and restored the IFHP funding for the supplementary health services for the government sponsored refugees.
However, the decision to cut IHFP funding for the refugees supported by the churches and other groups remained, and these health benefits were cancelled starting June 30.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, in partnership with local parishes and Catholic Social Services, has been active in the federal Private Sponsorship Program since the program started over 30 years ago.
At the start, the goal was to address the dire situation of the Vietnamese "boat people." Over the years, parishes in the Edmonton Archdiocese have assisted thousands of refugees from many countries across the globe starting a new life in Canada.
Local parishes participating in the refugee sponsorship program make a formal commitment of volunteer and financial support. The financial commitment is substantial. It can easily exceed $30,000 for the support of a large family for a year.
This is also a partnership with government, which provides important support through different government programs, such as English language classes. Prior to June 30, this government support included supplemental health care services.
Practically, the costs of these needed health services have been transferred to the sponsoring churches without any consultation. Significantly, an Anglican diocese in Manitoba is taking the federal government to court for breach of contract.
Estimates of the average costs for the health services provided for each refugee through IFHP range between $400 and $650 per year. It might be argued that this amount need not be a "deal breaker" for a parish already committed to raising tens of thousands of dollars. However, health care needs and associated costs can vary widely from person to person.
Often, refugees come to Canada with profound health challenges. The cuts to IFHP introduce substantial financial risks to parishes in existing sponsorship commitments and can discourage those who might consider making such commitments in the future.
In response to widespread public criticism of these cuts, the federal minister, Jason Kenny, defended his decision by insisting that refugees and refugee applicants should not receive any health benefits beyond what most Canadians usually receive.
To Christians, this response of putting the health needs of vulnerable Canadians and refugees into a "win-lose" competition with each other is disturbing. Over and over in the Old Testament, we read of God's special concern for the "widows, orphans, and sojourners." Biblical scholars see "sojourners" as very much including immigrants and refugees.
This listing of the three groups of those at greatest risk of poverty and injustice in ancient Israel is repeated dozens of times in Scripture. At no point are the needs of these vulnerable groups put in competition with each other.
Rather the scriptural message is clear: To be faithful to the covenant means to live in right relationship with God and to live in right relationship with neighbour, especially the widows, orphans and sojourners.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)