Newcomers to New Brunswick could greatly benefit from a federal court ruling against Ottawa’s cuts to refugee health care, according to refugee advocate groups in Atlantic Canada.
“It’s going to completely change the ability of people claiming refugee status in New Brunswick to look after their health,” said Lee Cohen, an immigration lawyer and the founder of the Halifax Refugee Clinic.
On Friday, a federal court threatened to strike down the government’s cuts to refugee health care. The court ordered the government to reverse its cuts within four months.
“The federal court has seen the light and decided that oppressive government must be precluded from acting oppressively when people’s healthcare is at risk,” Cohen said.
The cuts, which came into effect in 2012, stripped health coverage for newcomers seeking refugee status in Canada.
Hard to pay for medication
Ahuka Kinyanga, a permanent resident living in Fredericton, said he doesn’t know how his family would survive without health coverage.
Kinyanga arrived in New Brunswick 10 months ago, along with most of his family.
“It’s very hard to find money to pay for medication without health insurance, without (coverage) it could be very very difficult for us,” Kinyanga said.
Kinyanga’s family is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they lived in Burundi for the last decade as refugees before coming to Canada.
Kinyanga and his 17 family members receive health coverage because they’re permanent residents. But he said life is very stressful for his friends applying for refugee status.
"For them, they worry," Kinyanga said.
"When you don’t have the coverage, it’s not easy."
Without health benefits, most refugee claimants are extremely vulnerable to disease and illness, according to Cohen.
Cuts hurt province
The federal government’s cuts have been a burden on New Brunswick’s health care system, according to Trevor Wilkinson, the program director at the Multicultural Association of Carleton County.
Wilkinson helps newcomers to New Brunswick access provincial and federal resources.
"From cutting the dollars from the federal point of view, somebody has to pick up the bill and then that ends up being the provinces," Wilkinson said.
"For a province like New Brunswick, it’s an added stress on our deficit situation and on our health-care situation."
Health providers also bear the brunt of the cuts, according to Cohen.
"Individual doctors and in some cases individual nurses were very surreptitiously on the side really trying to provide some kind of health care, or at least health advice to refugee claimants in need," Cohen said.
New Brunswick's health minister declined to comment on the ruling because the matter is before the courts. The federal government appealed the court’s decision hours after the ruling came out on Friday.