Although well-intentioned, the application process is deeply flawed, and it will prove to be a barrier to refuge, not the bridge it was designed to be. If Canada is to have a meaningful role in the temporary settlement picture for Ukrainians fleeing the ravages of war, we must up our game.
Applicants are expressing frustration over the amount of red tape and complicated application portal. Applicants are also asked to book an appointment to collect biometric data in a separate process from their initial application. And on the first day of this pathway being opened, there was already a multi-week wait for appointments, given the limited collection points in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries.
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In normal times, the Canadian temporary visa application process can be extremely cumbersome as applicants are required to provide voluminous supporting documentation related to education, employment history, military service, residence and family status. Many of these requirements remain in the CUAET process, though most of those fleeing did so with only the clothes on their backs and bare essentials as Russian missiles rained down upon them.
The vast majority of the 3.5+ million Ukrainians who have fled to date are women, children and seniors. Our policies must recognize a high degree of trauma, and our processes must be adjusted for real-life circumstances. And for the 6.5+ million internally displaced in Ukraine who are deciding what to do and where to go, bureaucratic and unforgiving processes only dissuade them from attempting to apply altogether. Tragically, it is less onerous for many to simply remain hiding in makeshift bomb shelters. The longer Ukrainians are required to wait, the more vulnerable they become.
Processing times and delays will only grow as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has long been plagued by capacity issues and backlogs, which were further exacerbated by the pandemic. At the end of 2021, the total immigration backlog to Canada stood at 1.8 million applications – a problem acknowledged in the Liberal Party’s election platform last year. Thus, while IRCC claims they will be able to prioritize and expedite Ukrainian applications, the department’s track record tells a different story.
One way Canada can prevent another backlog is to immediately waive the Temporary Resident Visa (TRV) requirement for Ukrainian citizens. This would allow those seeking temporary refuge to come to our country in the fastest, safest and most efficient way, aligning with the federal government’s stated goal.
If Ukraine were added to the visa-exempt country list, Ukrainians would still be required to obtain an electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) – the same pathway used for other European nationals who come to Canada temporarily.
Our country’s approach stands in stark contrast to the European Union, which established a visa-free regime with Ukraine in 2017, and the Irish government, which announced on the first day of the invasion an immediate lifting of all visa requirements for Ukrainians. No legislation is required for Canada to follow suit – it only takes a ministerial signature and green light at the Cabinet table.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has acknowledged this option was considered but rejected due to internal departmental IT demands. When the stakes are so high – life and death – our government should create the IT capacity.
What other horrors does the world need to witness in Ukraine before our government decides to do the right thing and create a system that is genuinely welcoming of Ukrainians seeking temporary shelter? Canada must provide an immediate lifeline to Ukrainians by waiving the temporary visa requirement.
Nick Krawetz is a long-time advocate for visa reform and volunteers within Manitoba’s Ukrainian community.
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