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 for migrant rights say.

The Migrant Rights Network says it worries 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 fear that their personal information will be 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.”

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.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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.

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