The federal government says refugees from a list of "safe" countries are "bogus" and don't deserve health care, yet hundreds of these claimants have been approved as legitimate refugees, including dozens from the United States.
Figures provided by the Immigration and Refugee Board to CBC News show 47 claimants from the U.S. have been approved since 2007, even though the U.S. is on a list of "Designated Countries of Origin" that are deemed by Canada to respect human rights and offer state protection — and therefore don't produce what Canada would recognize as refugees.
A small number of claimants from other "safe" countries, such as Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden have also been approved — joining hundreds more from Mexico, Hungary and countries that have recently been added the DCO list.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has defended the federal government's controversial move to cut back refugee health care by insisting taxpayers should not foot the bill for claimants who would eventually be rejected as illegitimate or "bogus."
As part of its reforms to the asylum system in 2012, the government scaled back medical benefits to these claimants to provide only basic, essential health care but not supplemental care, such as vision and dental care.
As well, rejected refugee claimants and claimants from countries the government considers "safe" (on the DCO list) are ineligible for any health care under the new law unless they pose a threat to public health.
Lorne Waldman, the Toronto lawyer who successfully challenged cuts to refugee health care in federal court, says the figures from the IRB prove the government's new policy is denying health care to legitimate refugees in need.
"The fact that some of these claimants from the so-called safe countries are ultimately accepted clearly contradicts the statements that the refugees from those countries are 'bogus,'" Waldman told CBC News. "To label claimants as 'bogus' is completely misleading and there is no basis to do so. It is just an attempt to obfuscate and confuse."
Most claimants that are ultimately rejected are still not "bogus" or fraudulent — they just don’t meet the strict definitions, Waldman said.
Department targeted abuse
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, agrees that the IRB figures show legitimate refugees are being denied health care services. While numbers from safe countries like U.S., France or Germany are relatively small, there are significant numbers from Mexico and Eastern and Central Europe who are granted permanent residency in Canada after their cases are heard.
"Hungary was the country with the fourth-largest number of refugees accepted in 2013, demonstrating that far from being safe, it is an important country of origin for refugees needing Canada's protection," she said.
According to the IRB figures, 406 claimants from Hungary were accepted in 2013 — after the country was added to the safe list in 2012. Another 182 were accepted from Mexico last year — another country included as a Designated Country of Origin in February 2013.
The Designated Country of Origin policy was designed to deter abuse of the refugee system by people from countries generally considered safe. Their claims are processed faster — which means quicker protection for those approved and also the quicker removal of those with unfounded claims.
There are now 37 countries listed as DCOs.
The IRB is a quasi-judicial independent board and the government can — and does — appeal its decisions.
Alexis Pavlich, spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, said refugee reforms that include restricting health care means more protection for those in need and faster removal of those who don't.
She said asylum claims from countries that have historically produced high numbers of unfounded claims have dropped by a dramatic 87 per cent. Changes have also yielded $600 million in savings to provincial and federal governments in welfare, education and health care costs.
The government expects that figure to rise to $1.6 billion over five years.
"The reforms have reduced a number of attractive incentives, which has deterred bogus claims ... that is to say, cases later found not to be legitimate refugee claims as well as those cases voluntarily withdrawn or abandoned by individuals supposedly in need of protection — who may be eligible to receive social benefits in their home country," she said.
The IRB could not divulge the circumstances of the U.S. cases that were approved. Generally, the applicant must have a founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group, or be in danger of facing torture or cruel and unusual treatment.
Dench said some cases are related to family unity. In one high-profile case earlier this year, Florida convicted sex offender Denise Harvey was granted refugee status in Canada despite an appeal by the federal government. She was handed a 30-year prison sentence for five counts of unlawful sexual activity with a 16-year-old boy.