Nobel laureate joins Toronto rabbi group in condemning refugee health cuts

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

In this Dec. 10, 2009 file photo, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Wiesel listens during an interview with The Associated Press in Budapest, Hungary. (Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press)

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has joined leading members of his Jewish faith in denouncing cuts to the funding of refugee health care introduced by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which has spent years courting the voters in that community.

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The challenge to the rollback of health benefits is the latest attack against the measures that were part of a sweeping slate of reforms to Canada’s immigration system. Eight of Canada’s leading health associations have condemned the reductions. Doctors threaten to keep account of the harm done. And the Canadian Medical Association Journal is publishing an article on Monday that will say that the new rules are potentially damaging to the psychiatric health of vulnerable people.

The Toronto Board of Rabbis wrote to Mr. Harper asking him to abandon the changes. It was an unusual step for a religious group that is rarely political, and which represents a segment of the population that the Harper government has actively pursued in its efforts to win support among Canada’s ethnic and religious groups. Significant numbers of Jewish voters have migrated to the Tories from the Liberals since 2006 as a result of Mr. Harper’s strong support for Israel.

The backlash against the changes to refugee health coverage is one of the few times that a core constituency of the Conservatives has spoken out strongly against a central plank of the government’s policy – although there have been other instances, including seniors’ anger over changes to the taxation rules around income trusts and Old Age Security.

Mr. Wiesel, who survived the Auschwitz death camp to become a renowned scholar and political activist in the United States, said this week in a written statement obtained by The Globe and Mail that he stands in solidarity with the Toronto Rabbis. The rabbis said it is wrong for the government to designate some countries as being “safe” and to deny payments for medical treatments obtained by asylum seekers from those places.

“As a former refugee, together with the Toronto Board of Rabbis, I feel morally compelled to remain on the side of other uprooted men and women everywhere,” said Mr. Wiesel, who was a keynote speaker two years ago at a conference on anti-Semitism in Ottawa that was organized with the help of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, the minister behind the refugee reforms. “Today, as yesterday, a nation is judged by its attitude towards refugees,” Mr. Wiesel wrote.

Shimon Fogel, the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said his organization agrees with many of the changes the Conservative government has made to refugee policy and with the goal of preventing bogus claims. But, with regard to the health benefits, “we have some concerns, and we have registered some of them with the government.”

But the Harper government does not appear swayed by the response, even if it is coming from a community that it has worked hard to bring into the party fold. A spokesman for Mr. Kenney said those criticizing the reforms do not understand them.

The government believes most Canadians would find it shocking that the number one source of refugees to Canada is a country in Europe, the spokesman said. “Right now, nearly 95 per cent of people who come here from the European Union and claim asylum either withdraw or abandon their own claim,” said the spokesman, because they cannot make a legitimate case for asylum. He added that 100 per cent of people who come from the European Union register for welfare.

The top country of origin for refugee claimants in Canada is Hungary, and the majority of those refugees are Roma, a group that has had a strong bond with the Jews dating back to the Second World War.

“The special relationship is that we found ourselves during the Shoah being together in Auschwitz and being persecuted at the same time,” said Nate Leipciger of Toronto, a former co-president of the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Canada. When Canada turned away more than 900 Jews on board the MS St. Louis in 1939 and sent them back to the horrors of pre-war Germany, the government considered Germany safe, Mr. Leipciger said. “It was safe for Germans, just as Hungary is safe today for Hungarians. It not safe for Roma.”

Under the rules that took that took effect a week ago, all benefits and payments for treatment formerly provided under the Interim Federal Health Program will be denied to refugees who come from a country that Canada declares to be safe. That list of countries has yet to be announced but it is expected to include Hungary.

Refugees who come from countries that are not on the safe list, and who are not among the relatively small number of claimants brought to Canada directly by the government, no longer qualify for supplemental health benefits, including payments for prescription drugs, vision care and dental coverage. They are entitled to medical health coverage only if it is of “an urgent or essential nature.”

Mr. Kenney says that the moves, which will save the government about $20-million annually, were necessary because refugees were receiving better health benefits than ordinary Canadians were getting. But doctors point out that people seeking asylum in Canada are often very poor and, under the old system, were getting the same benefits that hundreds of thousands of impoverished Canadians receive through social assistance.

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