Advocacy groups call for COVID-19 vaccine plan for migrants, undocumented workers

Canada's COVID-19 vaccine rollout needs to guarantee equal access for migrants and undocumented workers, advocates say.

People shouldn't be required to show health cards or provide personal information to get a shot, groups say

Health care workers wait for patients at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Advocates say migrants and undocumented workers shouldn't be required to provide identification, addresses or information about their immigration status in order to receive a vaccine. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Canada's COVID-19 vaccine rollout needs to guarantee equal access for migrants and undocumented workers, advocates for migrant rights say.

The Migrant Rights Network says it fears that countless migrant and undocumented workers won't get vaccinated because of their immigration status — either because they lack access to health coverage or they worry about their personal information being shared with immigration enforcement authorities.

"While federal and provincial governments have made promises and assurances that vaccine access will be universal, policies and practices have not changed," said Syed Hussan, a member of the Migrant Rights Network secretariat, at a virtual press conference today.

"Concrete action is urgently necessary to ensure life-saving public health measures are accessible to all migrant and undocumented people."

WATCH: Advocates call for equal access to vaccines for migrants and undocumented workers

Advocates call for equal vaccine access for migrants and undocumented workers

3 years ago
Duration 1:11
An undocumented long-term-care worker — identified only as "Lily" — says she was denied access to the COVID-19 vaccine because she doesn’t have a provincial health card.

The group laid out a list of demands in an open letter signed by 270 civil society organizations and addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and provincial and territorial leaders.

Their goals include: making sure vaccines are free for everyone in Canada, regardless of immigration status; ensuring that getting a vaccine doesn't require a health card; and directing vaccine providers to not demand personal information in exchange for receiving a vaccine dose.

The group also said that vaccines shouldn't be mandatory and that health care providers should be trained not to turn people away if they don't have a health card or access to health insurance.

The letter comes as provinces and territories make plans for a country-wide mass vaccination campaign. The quantity of vaccine doses being delivered to Canada is expected to ramp up substantially in the coming weeks and months.

Many lack health cards

The Migrant Rights Network estimates that over 1.6 million people in Canada don't have permanent resident status and says that many of them work in essential jobs in such sectors as health care, cleaning, construction, delivery and agriculture. The group says many migrants and undocumented workers are being denied vaccination because they don't have health cards — which in many cases are tied to work or study permits.

The group was joined at the press conference by an undocumented worker at a long-term care home in Toronto who came to Canada in 2014. The woman — identified only as "Lily" during the press conference — said her immigration status expired in Jan. 2020, leaving her undocumented and without an Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) card.

Lily said she has been denied the COVID-19 vaccine, while all the residents and staff in the home where she works have received two shots already.

"I am on the front line every day, just like everyone else who lives and works in the home. But while they are better protected from the virus's spread, I am not," said Lily.

"Undocumented workers are already denied access to health care, housing, social services and legal rights. Now we are being denied access to COVID vaccinations because it is tied to an OHIP card, which we do not have."

A man with dark hair and glasses smiles.
Dr. Danyaal Raza is a family doctor at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and board chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare. (St. Michael's Hospital Communications Department)

Dr. Danyaal Raza, board chair of the physicians' advocacy group Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said he was part of an outreach team that went into a Toronto homeless shelter last week to vaccinate residents there.

Raza said the team offers residents vaccinations without asking to see their health cards. They were also given the option of providing an alias.

Raza, who is also a family doctor at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said this model should be in place across the country — especially as provinces and territories prepare to conduct mass vaccination campaigns in the coming months. 

"We need to make sure that this is the case at every single vaccine clinic because we're hearing now that it's not, and that's not acceptable, especially if we're going to hit that target for herd immunity," said Raza.

Vaccines will be free and accessible: PHAC

Vancouver MP Jenny Kwan, the federal NDP's critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship, backed the call for vaccine access for migrants and undocumented workers.

"Migrant workers and undocumented workers do critical work in Canada and we have to ensure that we do our part in protecting them from COVID outbreaks without any fear of reprisals," said Kwan.

"Not only is including migrant workers and undocumented workers in the vaccination process the right thing to do, if we aren't targeting hotspots for transmission and protecting the most vulnerable to infection, then we are only prolonging the pandemic for everyone and adding additional strain to our hospitals."

The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed that the two COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved for use in Canada — from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — are free and will be accessible to everyone in Canada. 

"While they're available to priority populations first, they'll be available to everyone in Canada who is recommended to get the vaccine by federal, provincial and territorial public health authorities," Anna Maddison said by email. "This applies to everyone in Canada, including those who aren't citizens (and who are over the age of 16 for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or over the age of 18 for the Moderna vaccine)."

But Maddison pointed out that provincial and territorial governments are responsible for administering the vaccine.

Each province and territory has its own separate immunization plan laying out who can get a vaccine and when, along with the location of vaccination sites.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health said an OHIP card isn't necessary to receive a vaccine — although another piece of government-issued photo ID is, such as a driver's licence, passport or other provincial health card.

B.C.'s Ministry of Health said people looking to get vaccinated in that province will need to show proof of age and Canadian residency.

The ministry said it needs to collect some information so that anyone who receives the vaccine can be followed up with by public health for health reasons, and for scheduling a second dose. Any information provided to public health for the purpose of the immunization plan will not be shared with other organizations, the ministry said.

Over two million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed by the federal government since immunization began in December, and over 1.6 million doses have been administered, according to the COVID-19 Tracker project.

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