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Humanitarian, diplomat and activist Stephen Lewis poses in his house in Toronto, June 24, 2013.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Members of Canada's Jewish community are challenging the federal government's treatment of refugee claimants by lobbying for the repeal of laws that discourage asylum seekers from certain countries.

A new group, called the Jewish Refugee Action Network, was recently launched in Toronto.

Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader who went on to become Canada's ambassador to the United Nations and the UN's special envoy for HIV/AIDs in Africa, is a co-chair along with his wife, journalist Michele Landsberg.

JRAN is aimed at undoing a law that fast-tracks the applications from prospective refugees who come from a country the federal Immigration Minister has designated as safe and another law that strips refugees from those countries of the right to free health care.

Both were introduced last year by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in an effort to stop an influx of people from places like Hungary, a country where the Roma minority claim they are persecuted but which is a democracy with a developed legal system. The Globe and Mail talked to Mr. Lewis about the initiative.

Globe: What is the Jewish community's interest in this?

Stephen Lewis: We are people who have experienced such atrocious behaviour in the terrible period of the Holocaust when refugee status and entry were denied, it's very, very bitter to see the government of Canada engaging in policies of refugee exclusion and refugee denial.

Globe: Why is this needed?

SL: We know that, in Hungary for example, the behaviour toward the Roma, and the rising tide of anti-Semitism as well, means that that country should never have been designated [as a safe country] and used by the ministry the way it's being used. And then the appeals process has become so painful, so accelerated, so that people can actually be deported before the appeal is heard. That's such a transgression of human rights, it's almost unimaginable and it's certainly indefensible. And then there is the work that the doctors are doing in documenting the absence of health care for refugees. And, indeed, I think they have launched a legal challenge which we are supporting. That's also very painful in a country where the citizens of Canada believe in health care so deeply and to see it denied to another group? You are playing refugees off against the anxieties of Canadian citizens. So you demonizing a vulnerable group which is, frankly, rancid political behaviour.

Globe: What is JRAN actually going to do?

SL: [The board members] want to do an intense education job in all of the sort of religious groupings in the country, attempting to get it into the schools as well and the community centres and the trade unions to try to educate people about what is happening. … In addition to that, I think there will be very considerable pressure politically, certainly on the two major opposition parties, to raise these issues and identify the flaws in the legislation, and to go after it publicly in a way that may bring the sensibility of Canadians into play.

Globe: Is there any self-interest for those of us who are not refugees in seeing changes to this legislation?

SL: There is the self-interest of 'what kind of Canada do you want?' and 'what kind of Canada are we?'

This interview has been edited and condensed.