No more mental health care for refugees?

When a refugee flees to Canada seeking protection from persecution, entering our borders is just the first step. Canadians assist refugees out of a basic concern for human rights and human dignity, and this assistance covers everything from tending to their immediate needs to helping them integrate into Canadian society, whether their stay is temporary or permanent. Our government-funded programs and services help refugees find employment and housing, provide them with physical and mental health care, provide them with language classes, and connect them with communities both familiar and new.

Ok, ok, I’m pulling your leg a little bit here. Until quite recently, all of this was on offer, but in 2012 our government eliminated nearly all health care for refugees, and now mental health is on the chopping block, too. Refugee mental health services in British Columbia ended at the beginning of this month, leaving the 2,000 refugees and refugee claimants who come to BC each year without care.

Let’s take a moment to recall just how bad things can be for refugees. Having fled persecution, usually out of fear for one’s safety, refugees must set up in a foreign country, often with little or no family or community support, and little or no material possessions, for an indefinite period of time. No matter their circumstances, they are displaced, under stress, isolated, and vulnerable. In extreme cases they may fear or have experienced not just intimidation but the violence of kidnapping, imprisonment or torture, or have had family members or colleagues murdered.

Talk about putting a strain on one’s mental health! It’s no wonder these programs were set up for refugees. Why, then, would the Conservatives want to eliminate mental health care for people in such need of it? It’s a difficult question, and one I’m not sure I can answer. But while we’re mulling over the why, I’ll quickly explain the how.

The How

In 2008, the federal government turned management of federally funded refugee settlement programs over to the province of BC, as part of the federal-provincial immigration agreement (each province and territory has its own agreement). The deal was, the federal government would continue to provide funding ($616,000 a year), but BC would be in charge of distributing that money to specific programs. Then in 2012 the feds changed their minds, announcing they would take back this funding control, by April 2014. This simply meant organizations would have to apply for funding from the federal government, rather than the provincial government.

And that’s what happened. Last year the four BC organizations who provided refugee mental health services applied for continued funding, as per usual. Except this time the federal government denied their applications. And just like that, BC mental health services for refugees were gone. (Note: A small amount of funding actually remained, but as with physical health care it was earmarked exclusively for government-sponsored refugees, and for two of the organizations it was not enough to keep the services running.)

Ironically, the funding cuts came into effect right in time for Refugee Rights Day (April 4), in keeping with the government’s almost comical track record of poorly timed policy changes.

Possible Explanations

So what’s going on? Was this mere bureaucratic incompetence, or was it part of a larger government policy? And why has this only happened in BC? Honestly, it’s difficult to tell. What I can tell you is that the announcement of changes to mental health funding came at the same time as the announcement that gutted refugee health care (in April 2012, by then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney). In both cases, the government played favourites with one category of refugees—those they select themselves—over the other two categories: those sponsored privately, and those who land in Canada independent of any selection process (known in the biz as “Refugees Landed in Canada,” or RLCs).

The three categories aren’t all that important (it’s an organizational thing); all you need to know is that we have equal responsibility to all of them. Still, the Conservatives have made little attempt to hide their disdain for RLCs (the category they have the least control over): the government’s squeeze on federal refugee policy was itself in reaction to the arrival of a boat filled with RLCs, and the new policy is designed explicitly to dissuade RLCs from coming to Canada (against international convention, by the way). Even though most RLCs arrive by plane, the Conservatives only really freak out over boat arrivals—and the port of Vancouver is the major point of entry for RLCs arriving by boat. So if you want to discourage refugees from coming by boat, BC’s the place to do it.

The Most Generous Refugee Program in the World

But enough speculation. Here’s the point: the Conservatives like to say that Canada has one of the most generous refugee programs in the world. They say it again and again, as if repeating it will make it true. Refusing to support the basic mental health needs of refugees, however, is a major strike against this claim.

I’m betting the government wouldn’t call its refugee program a token gesture aimed at maintaining an international reputation. I’m sure they wouldn’t say they do the absolute minimum necessary (or even less, if they can get away with it) to maintain this reputation. But between you and me, that’s how it looks. If they really want to boast about having one of the world’s most generous refugee programs, they damn well better start putting some effort into it. They’ve really got to start caring—not just about their reputation, but about human dignity itself, about human rights. Because in the end only one thing really matters: we need to take care of our most vulnerable, and we’ve got to mean it.


The BC organizations hit with funding cuts are the Immigration Services Society of BC, the Vancouver Association of Survivors of Torture, Family Services of Greater Vancouver, and the Bridge Clinic.

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