Canada struggles to rescue Ukrainian refugees


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Russia’s war on Ukraine has generated Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, overwhelming neighboring host countries.

According to a situation report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, around 5.7 million refugees fled Ukraine between February 24 and May 3. A staggering 3.1 million of these refugees have been taken in by neighboring Poland.

Given that people of Ukrainian descent make up one of the largest ethnic communities in Canada, it’s no surprise that many Canadians are eager to provide safe haven for displaced people.

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“Through the Canada-Ukraine Emergency Travel Authorization (CUAET), Ukrainian nationals and their family members can apply for a temporary resident visa to travel and stay temporarily in Canada,” Aidan Strickland, Press Secretary from the Office of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Whig-Standard told in an email.

The special measure allows Ukrainian nationals to “apply for a free visitor visa and may be permitted to stay in Canada for three years, as opposed to the standard six-month permitted stay for regular visitors,” says a press release issued by the ministry.

According to Strickland, the department “received over 196,000 applications from Ukrainian nationals between March 17 and May 1, 2022 and approved over 85,000 applications.” So far, approximately 23,000 Ukrainian nationals have arrived in Canada.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a series of special measures to help Ukrainians fleeing the war of Russian aggression. These measures include charter flights to Canada for Ukrainians, short-term income support for refugees and temporary hotel accommodation for up to two weeks.

Grassroots response to the refugee crisis

Canadians responded to the crisis by organizing local initiatives to shelter those displaced by the war. For example, Peggy Blair, a real estate agent from Ottawa, is one of many Canadians trying to help.

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In February, Blair posted on Twitter that she had rooms available for Ukrainian refugees. In response to her post, she received an email from a refugee named Sasha. The Whig-Standard withholds his surname to protect his family from possible Russian reprisals.

“She and her mother had fled Kharkiv, were in Lviv and were heading to Poland,” Blair told the Whig-Standard in an email. The young women told Blair that she and her mother wanted to come to this country because “Canada has a thriving Ukrainian community and is a welcome place for people like us.” And Sasha pleaded: “If you could help us in any way, we would be very grateful.”

“After hearing about her, I tweeted to see if I could find a foster family in a town that had a larger Ukrainian population than Ottawa, given that her mother doesn’t speak English,” explained the estate agent. “Andrew Pearson, an Edmonton firefighter, former military, current reservist, responded immediately and said he would take them.”

Welcoming refugees

Why do you want to help Ukrainian refugees?

“I originally wanted to go fight, but I have too much responsibility here,” admitted Pearson. “So I tried to figure out the best way to make a difference. And, honestly, helping refugees would probably be the best way for me to help in this conflict.

Pearson said when they arrived in Edmonton, he was ready to provide them with accommodation in his condo or find them another place to live.

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Do you have rental properties that you can offer to refugees?

“I would be happy to do that,” he replied.

What are you willing to do to help resettle refugees?

“Everything,” Pearson replied. “I’m going to do all the leg work, advocate for them.” For example, he said that Sasha, who wears braces, needs to see an orthodontist. “I will contact the orthodontists where she is and see if they are willing to take her for free.”

Good news update

On May 4, Blair informed the Whig-Standard that the refugees had contacted Pearson about their situation.

What is their status?

“They finally got their passports today,” Pearson told the Whig-Standard via text message. “Turns out they were ready on April 3, but no one had told them.

“We are just starting to look at tickets and flights now. We expect them to arrive this month. They will land in Toronto.

What is your reaction to the news that they got their passport back?

“Part outrage, part frustration, part relief and part excitement,” Pearson replied. “I know the (Canadian) embassy is overwhelmed and the process has not been easy.

Ukrainian Canadian Congress

Is the Ukrainian Canadian Congress concerned about the refugee claim bottlenecks at the Canadian Embassy in Poland?

“We know there is a lot of demand on the ground,” replied Cassian Soltykevych, National Secretary of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

Should the Canadian government deploy additional staff and resources to the embassy?

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“Oh, absolutely,” Soltykevych told the Whig-Standard. Moreover, he said the federal government should provide charter flights now to bring Ukrainians to Canada.

“All this is not going well,” he said. “We see Canadians fundraising themselves and paying for flights for people.

“In almost every city, our community, our people don’t know when people are coming in, and they just wait in airports waiting, hoping to run into these people when they get to an airport,” he said.


Given the local nature of resettlement efforts, are you concerned that refugees are vulnerable to human trafficking?

“Absolutely, because we’re not a settlement agency,” Soltykevych said. And he pointed out that it has been almost a month since the Prime Minister unveiled special measures to help refugees. “All are announced, but they are not in place.”

If these measures were already in place, the process would be more organized and safer for refugees, he said.

What should the Canadian government do to help protect Ukrainian refugees while they wait in Poland?

Soltykevych said Canada should “provide a reliable source of information and a clear path for those wishing to come to Canada.”

The federal government responds

“We are working around the clock to help Ukrainians and their families get to Canada as quickly and safely as possible,” said Aidan Strickland of IRCC.

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For example, she said Canada “takes a risk-based approach to biometric screening” of refugees. This means that three cohorts are exempt from the biometrics requirement: applicants aged 17 or younger; candidates aged 61 or over; and applicants who have already been approved for a Canadian visa within the last 10 years.

Ukrainian nationals applying under the CUAET program can give their biometrics at Visa Application Centers (VACs) or other biometrics collection sites outside of Ukraine. For example, visa application centers operate in the neighboring countries of Moldova, Romania, Austria and Poland, as well as throughout Europe.

“We are closely monitoring the operational capacity of IRCC offices and VACs in Europe and have deployed additional staff, supplies and equipment to the region,” Strickland revealed. “We are also setting up additional biometric collection locations and increasing the capacity of existing VACs.”

Additionally, Strickland said IRCC, with the help of Global Affairs Canada, opened the Canadian Biometrics Operations Center (CBOC) in Warsaw on April 19. in the medium term, with greater capacity in the longer term in the event of continued demand.

Standard CUAET requests “are processed within the 14-day window, 93% of the time,” she added.

To inform displaced Ukrainians about the CUAET initiative, Canada is establishing the Canada Information Center in Warsaw. According to a May 4 press release from IRCC, the information center will answer applicants’ questions about moving to Canada.

According to a May 3 report, Newfoundland Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne confirmed that “the first flight of Ukrainian refugees to Canada is scheduled to land in St. John’s on May 9.” About 175 Ukrainian refugees will be on board the charter flight from Poland.

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.

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