Refugees and Rights: A Compassionate Response

This week’s guest blog is written by Amy Matychuk, law student at the University of Calgary.

From February 18-20, I was part of a group of 30 students and MCC staff from across Canada who met in Ottawa to learn about refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons at the annual MCC Student Seminar. We heard from United Nations staff, from Members of Parliament, from civil servants, from MCC staff who work with refugees, and from volunteers with newcomers to Canada.Thomas' selfie photo

For two and a half days, we learned about displaced persons, Canada’s response to their needs, and ways in which we can help. Those who work intimately with refugees were able to provide our group with insights into the steep set of challenges that refugees face. I learned many details both about the Syrian refugee crisis and about refugees worldwide that helped to inform my perspective on how Canadians and Canadian Christians should respond.

Firstly, I was shocked to learn how few refugees have the opportunity to resettle in places like Canada and how many remain in refugee camps for indefinite lengths of time. I assumed that refugee camps were places of transition, but many people stay there long enough to have children and grandchildren. I found this fact heartbreaking, but also valuable to know as I respond to those around me who are upset or suspicious about the refugees the Canadian government is accepting.

So much of what news stories seem to focus on are things like security risks or the difficulty of integrating refugees or the amount of money spent on re-settlinmccstudentseminar-8g Syrians that could be used to benefit the lives of Canadians. In responding to these suspicion-filled narratives about refugee resettlement, I think it is helpful to focus on the humanity of people who have no choice but to spend huge portions of their lives with no opportunity to work, no access to education, and sometimes very little hope for their futures. Elizabeth May, one of the speakers, described the many years refugees spend in camps as “a waste of human potential.”

As Christians, we should be less concerned about our own wealth or safety than about being God’s hands and feet and participating in God’s work of, as Jeremiah 29:11 puts it, giving others the chance to prosper and to have a hope and a future.

Secondly, I learned about the difficulties refugees face once they reach Canada. As though being displaced from their home countries because of threats of violence wasn’t enough shock and upheaval for a lifetime, they often struggle with some aspects of integration.

For this new influx of Syrian refugees in particular, the government infrastructure for receiving refugees is sparse and disorganized. Because of linguistic and cultural barriers, they don’t know where to go grocery shopping, how to use public transit, or how to manage the very small living stipend that the government provides them (the same amount as a Canadian on social assistance).mccstudentseminar-9

These facts underscored for me how important it is to be on the lookout for those who need my help, as a Canadian and an English speaker but also as a friend, advocate, and listening ear. As a student, I can’t give much financially, but I realized that I still have time and skills that could dramatically change someone’s life for the better.

Thirdly, the presenters at the seminar challenged me to reconsider the way I view my rights as a Canadian. I can guard my rights jealously; I can protest that it is not my fault that I was born in a country that guarantees my rights to movement, expression, and religion, and that I should not be responsible for the well-being of people I have never met because I happened to be born in a wealthy country.

On their face, these statements are logical. Nothing legally forces me to be concerned for Syrian children in refugee camps, and there is no code that sets out my obligation to ensure their rights are respected. However, if I consider my rights as a Canadian alongside the values Jesus exemplified, I should instead be humbled that I did nothing to earn my good fortune. I should consider it the greatest and most significant expression of my rights as a Canadian that I seek to include others in the same freedom and opportunity that I enjoy.

In seeking to extend these rights as far as I can, I should avoid the temptation to fear that my own wealth or safety will be compromised. However compelling as these arguments may be, they are distractions that prey on my own greed and self-interest rather than enabling me to live as Jesus would have.

I hope that in the years ahead, Canadians will be able to look back and be proud of the welcome we extended when the vulnerable needed our help the most.



Bogus refugees include pregnant women, babies and children

By Jane Pritchard, member of Toronto United Mennonite Church and family physician who has cared for refugees for the past 22 years in her private medical practice.

On April 25, 2012, via an Order in Council, the Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, significantly restricted access of refugees to health care.

I firmly believe that these actions are morally wrong, demonizing refugees as being primarily “bogus” and declaring that certain countries of origin can never produce refugees.

But purely from a public health perspective, these changes are unsound policy.

Who is most at risk of a life-threatening condition in any given short period of time? Pregnant women and their infants.

It is no solution to deny pregnant women from, say, Hungary, with all the inequities they face, prenatal care because they are from “a designated country of origin.” They need prenatal care, safe delivery, and their babies need access to medical care and immunizations.

Otherwise they will wait until fear of death is greater than fear of an unknown hospital bill, and then they’ll end up in our emergency departments, paid for by the provinces and territories; or they will suffer terrible consequences, even death, at home.

On May 11th, at the office of Toronto MP Joe Oliver, a small group of physicians demonstrated to focus public attention on the dire consequences to health that could result from these changes. This was the beginning of “Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care” (CDRC), a broad-based coalition of physicians across the country trying to preserve healthcare services for our patients and those yet to come.

Perhaps due in part to our public outcry, Minister Kenney did make changes to the original Order in Council to exempt government-sponsored refugees from the cuts. The changes, however, appeared overnight on a government website just before the July long weekend, and there was never any direct admission of a retraction.

Instead what was announced was “expanded health services,” a new category allowing government-sponsored refugees access to medications, basic dental procedures, vision and special devices.

This was precisely what they received before the changes.

The loss of this coverage would have raised the embarrassing spectre of refugees in remote UNHCR camps losing their access to medications needed to treat their diabetes, depression, hypertension, and heart disease when they agreed to be sponsored by the Canadian government.

Prior to the government’s “clarification” on June 30, it was plainly evident on the government website what the changes were going to mean for each category of refugee, and this was apparently acceptable because refugees should not get gold plated health care plans that Canadians cannot afford.

In fact, what we were and still are asking to restore is access to the basic services all Canadians on social assistance receive across the country.

Refugees come here with no money, traumatized, and usually needing to learn a new language to work.

What is the point of denying their children glasses so they can attend school?

I had an opportunity to present a handwritten letter to Minister Kenney two weeks ago after a church celebration in Toronto for the safe arrival of refugees who had been persecuted for their Christian faith.

I expressed my appreciation for his intervention in the case of these particular refugees, and urged him to use the power invested in him by the people of Canada, and by God, to restore access to health care for all refugee claimants. I quoted Deuteronomy 24:17: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice.” It felt like a respectful encounter.

But much more is needed.

Physicians can take the issue only so far. To further influence the Minister and the government, citizens across the country must make their views known, loudly and often.

We can’t do it alone.

Will you write letters to Minister Kenney, your MP, and to Prime Minister Harper? To your local newspaper?

So-called “bogus” refugees include pregnant women, babies, and children.

Clamping down on refugees: Is Bill C-31 reflecting or shaping Canadian attitudes?

By Ed Wiebe, MCC Canada Refugee Assistance Program Co-ordinator

This month Canada will admit some 1,000 newly arrived refugees from camps all around the world. Another 1,000 or so who came here directly to make a refugee claim inside Canada will be declared “eligible to stay” since they indeed had a bona fide reason for requesting refuge. On the face of it that sounds pretty good, quite generous.


But that is far from the whole story, and does not indicate the direction Canada’s compassion arrow is pointing. Less than a few decades ago, we did double those numbers. No one ever said we could not afford it any more, or that there were too many “bogus” refugees trying to cheat their way in.

Now, as Bill C-31 is about to become law, even the UN Refugee Agency is cautioning that Canada is risking falling into a status of non-compliance with respect to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, given the international treaties, conventions and other statues we have signed on to over the years.

Those agreements were entered into in our reach for stature on the world stage where Canada enjoyed an almost revered place as a good guy who always had a kind word or deed to offer to the world’s dispossessed or downtrodden.

What happened?

In part, that lofty position may not have been entirely warranted even then, since we also had a few black eyes when it came to treatment of the other. Note our lack of compassion for the refugee-laden ship, the St. Louis, which we turned back to the high seas with its desperate cargo of Jewish refugees from Europe. Or how we interred the Japanese on our own soil and only recently have offered a mumbled, belated “sorry” over that period.

Yet Bill C-31 is set to clamp down in even more harsh ways, no matter what the evidence is, or what others are now saying about us as a nation. This new bill will see us throwing new arrivals into jail – not immigration detention facilities, but jail! – upon arrival, and for up to 6 months.

No exceptions, even for women or children.

That will cost exorbitant amounts of money each month. Until recently, we gave such arrivals a quick screening on security and medical grounds, and in most instances, sent them on into communities with a temporary work card so they could pay their own way while we sorted out their refugee claims.

Polls over the past eighteen months, however, have indicated a hardening of opinions over immigration in ways that seem new in our country and more akin to the trends in Europe.

While there have often been dips in the attitude towards immigrants and immigration, the general trend in Canada over the decades has always settled back in to a state of general agreement that immigration is good for us.

What is changing now?

For the first time in my long memory, we have a government that is vocally and repeatedly negative about overall immigration. This is especially so regarding the small portion we call humanitarian and compassionate admissions such as refugees.

As the new Bill becomes law within the next short while, maybe it’s little wonder that the public is souring on “the least of these” [Matt.25.31-46] as well.

Is the government’s clamping down on refugees reflecting or shaping Canadian attitudes?