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Denying Social Assistance to Refugee Claimants Violates International Law: Bill C-585 Must be Withdrawn

    October 22, 2014

    On 23 October 2014 the Federal government tabled, Bill C-43, an omnibus budget bill which contains the same provisions as those found in Bill C-585.  Amnesty International believes these provisions must be withdrawn from Bill C-43.

    Amnesty International is calling for Bill C-585, An Act to amend the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act (period of residence), to be withdrawn.  The Private Member’s Bill, proposed by Corneliu Chisu, M.P, would allow provinces to reduce access to social assistance for refugee claimants and other people without permanent status in Canada. 

    Bill C-585 violates Canada’s binding obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention).

    Article 9 of the ICESCR provides that States Parties, including Canada, “recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.” The ICESCR contains no jurisdictional limitations, and the rights contained therein should be available to all people, including non-nationals such as refugee claimants.  The right to social assistance is no exception, and refugee claimants “should enjoy equal treatment in access to non-contributory social security schemes, including reasonable access to health care and family support, consistent with international standards.” 

    The right to social assistance has also been affirmed in the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Declaration of Philadelphia, which recognizes the right to “social security measures to provide a basic income to all in need of such protection[.]” Canada, a member State of the ILO, endorsed the Declaration of Philadelphia and undertook to work to achieve the rights contained therein. Social security is also a fundamental human right enshrined in Articles 22 and 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. 

    The right to social assistance “is of central importance in guaranteeing human dignity for all persons when they are faced with circumstances that deprive them of their capacity to fully realize their Covenant rights.”  The Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights has stated that “[w]hereas everyone has the right to social security States parties should give special attention to those individuals and groups who traditionally face difficulties in exercising this right, in particular […] refugees [and] asylum seekers[.]” 

    Bill C-585 also implicates the right to life guaranteed in Article 6 of the ICCPR. The right to life includes both negative and positive obligations.  Those positive obligations involve adopting measures to protect life, including providing access to social assistance, which directly impacts individuals’ abilities to access basic necessities such as shelter, food, or healthcare.

    Additionally, Bill C-585 directly contravenes the object and spirit of the Refugee Convention. The Refugee Convention highlights the international community’s “profound concern” for refugees and affirms its commitment to “assure refugees the widest possible exercise of [...] fundamental rights and freedoms.”  As stated by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Refugee Convention should be interpreted in light of its “overarching and clear human rights object and purpose.”  The UNHCR has stated firmly that despite the apparent difficulties faced by governments, a fair and humane response to all asylum-seekers is possible, and indeed, required in terms of the Refugee Convention. This response has a legal and social welfare component […] UNHCR is of the opinion that within the humanitarian spirit of the Refugee Convention lies a State’s obligation to ensure that asylum-seekers enjoy basic subsistence support to sustain them in dignity[.]

    Deliberate attempts at worsening the lives of refugee claimants, who are already in situations of extreme precariousness, by restricting their access to social assistance violates Canada’s protection obligations under the Refugee Convention.

    Canada has undertaken under Article 2 of the ICESCR to take steps to progressively realize the rights in the Covenant, including the right to social assistance.  A corollary to this commitment is the obligation to refrain from limiting the fundamental rights guaranteed in the ICESCR. There is a strong presumption in international law that retrogressive measures taken in relation to fundamental human rights are prohibited.  There is no justification for measures that result in arbitrary cuts to social assistance and have devastating impacts to refugee claimants’ lives on the basis of their immigration status sufficient to rebut this presumption.

    Principles similar to the rule against non-retrogression have been espoused by the Supreme Court of Canada, which has held that once the government puts in place a scheme to provide benefits, that scheme must be administered in a Charter-compliant way.

    Bill C-585 should be immediately withdrawn.  It contravenes numerous international human rights obligations binding on Canada.  The impact of the Bill would be devastating to individuals who have suffered a great deal in their home countries and have fled to Canada in order to seek protection. It would deliberately prolong their suffering and deny them the protection they so desperately need and that Canada has committed to providing.


    For further information, please contact Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations 416-363-9933 ext 332