Narrowing Our Moral Community of Concern: A Critique of Canada’s New Refugee Policies – Ben Langer
Western University School of Medicine and Dentistry
The doctors of Canada are angry. Last May in Toronto, a group of 90 physicians clad in white coats and scrubs occupied the office of a high-ranking member of the Canadian Parliament. Since then, physicians have consistently interrupted press conferences held by Conservative members of Parliament to protest cuts to the country’s Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which since 1957 has provided basic health care to refugees and asylum seekers.
Under the new policy, many refugees will receive care only in “urgent and necessary” cases or if their illness is deemed a threat to public health. Ironically, these cuts came into effect on the July 1st celebration of Canada Day, when this nation of immigrants and refugees celebrates its independence and its core values of generosity, openness, and multiculturalism.
Along with these cuts to the IFHP, Parliament recently passed a bill that makes sweeping changes to the Canadian refugee system. Named the Protecting Canada’s Refugee System Act, Bill C-31 expedites review of asylum claims and deportation of asylum claimants arriving from “designated countries of origin” (DCOs), or countries that, according to the Minister of Immigration, should not be producing refugees. It also disallows DCO claimants from appealing refused asylum applications and permits deportation without judicial review. As a result of these provisions, many vulnerable people seeking asylum may be deported into situations that risk their lives. C-31 also permits the detention of asylum seekers sixteen and older whose arrival is designated “irregular” (typically those who arrived in Canada en masse by boat) and tightly limits their rights to access the asylum process or appeal asylum decisions.
Taken together, Bill C-31 and the IFHP cuts drastically change Canada’s immigration system – first, by treating some of the most vulnerable people reaching Canada’s shores as criminals and con artists, and second, by giving unprecedented power to the Minister of Immigration to shape the fate of anyone coming to Canada to claim asylum.
In announcing the IFHP cuts, Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney stressed that “Canadians are a very generous people and Canada has a generous immigration system.” How can cutting support to extremely vulnerable people be reconciled with this claim? According to Kenney the IFHP cuts are justified for two reasons, one economic and one deterrence-related. The economic argument alleges that, “we do not want to ask Canadians to pay for benefits for protected persons and refugee claimants that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves.” The deterrence argument states that, “With this reform, we are also taking away an incentive from people who may be considering filing an unfounded refugee claim in Canada.” Kenney and fellow supporters consistently add that Bill C-31 will stop so-called immigration queue-jumping.
All of these justifications have been soundly refuted by health care and legal groups, including the Canadian Medical Association, Amnesty International, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. What merits further scrutiny, however, is the role such arguments play in a larger campaign to portray many refugees as unworthy of our care.
Willen recently wrote of unauthorized migrants that, “they are excluded not only from the political community, but also from the moral community of people whose lives, bodies, illnesses, and injuries are deemed worthy of attention, investment, or concern” (2012: 806). Only by portraying these extremely vulnerable people as “undeserving” (Willen 2012) can Canada deny them care while at the same time maintaining an air of generosity. And according to the new policy, these “undeserving” people should be detained, deported as quickly as possible, and denied access to health care.
This discursive manoeuvering imagines refugee claimants from DCOs, no matter what their personal situation, as bogus claimants trying to take advantage of Canada’s generosity. Regardless of the hardship of their lives and their journeys, those arriving in ways deemed “irregular” are imagined as immigration queue-jumpers – as people who freely choose a quick and easy route to Canadian protection and citizenship. Health care professionals, medical anthropologists, and others who care for asylum seekers and refugees and hear the intimate details of their stories are the most obvious candidates to combat these portrayals, which we know from our daily work to be both wrong and demeaning.
A group called Doctors for Refugee Care has begun this task by calling on health professionals to record every adverse outcome of these policies via an accessible online monitoring and evaluation system. This initiative is an important start, and it must be maintained. Yet the conversation is as much about narrative as it is about documented outcomes. As important as it is to demonstrate that harsh immigration and detention policies don’t deter desperate asylum seekers but rather contribute to horrible health outcomes – and as long as the people being harmed are deemed undeserving – changing the policy will be impossible. What is crucial is to bring powerful stories of those seeking protection into the discursive fray. In fighting against these measures, we must focus on rehumanizing refugees and asylum seekers by insisting vehemently that they are, in fact, deserving of care and concern.
Take, for example, a six-year-old Mexican child I met working at Children’s Peace Theatre in Toronto. This sweet, hyperactive boy shyly told us how his father was a police officer in a Mexican city in which police are targeted by drug cartels. He then acted out walking down the street with his family, terrified of people shooting at them from rooftops, and described how they fled to Canada after a close friend and colleague of his father was killed. The family was granted asylum, but Mexico is very likely to end up on the DCO list, which will put people in similar situations at risk of being deported to their deaths. In my mind the IFHP cuts and C-31 are this simple; before them this boy and his family live, and after them they die. This is not a hypothetical consequence; in February, a refused refugee claimant named Veronica Castro was murdered one month after her deportation to Mexico.
Only by telling – and listening to – stories like these will Canadians become attuned to the profound cognitive dissonance between how we want to see ourselves and current Canadian government policy. Pregnant women with high blood pressure, children with asthma, and men with diabetes have all lost access to care. We must repeatedly remind ourselves that they could be our siblings, parents, or children. Through this visceral, narrative approach, we can rehumanize the people most affected by these regressive policy changes and wake ourselves from our complacence. In short, we cannot convincingly declare ourselves generous while denying care to those who deserve it.
Willen, S. (2012). Migration, “illegality,” and health: Mapping embodied vulnerability and debating health-related deservingness. Social Science and Medicine, 74, 805-811.
Ben Langer is a medical student at Western University in London, Ontario. His research interests include migration and health, and a critical approach to global public health security. He has conducted fieldwork on the securitization and militarization of public health in Israel and Palestine, focusing on avian flu preparedness, and is currently conducting research on the experiences of African asylum seekers in Israel.
Langer, Ben. 2012. “Narrowing Our Moral Community of Concern: A Critique of Canada’s New Refugee Policies.” Accessed [date] at http://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/narrowing-our-moral-community-of-concern-a-critique-of-canadas-new-refugee-policies-ben-langer/.