Sabine El-Chidiac is educational programs manager and director of alumni affairs at the Institute for Liberal Studies in Ottawa, and was an adviser to two Canadian ministers of citizenship and immigration. Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University, and the author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has forced more than 4.5 million people to flee that country, in one of the largest refugee crises since the Second World War. At the same time, many thousands of Russians are also trying to flee Mr. Putin’s increasing oppression, which has included a near-total shutdown of independent media and new laws that criminalize calling the conflict in Ukraine a war or invasion.
So Canada and other Western nations have moral and pragmatic reasons to do more to open their doors to Ukrainian and Russian migrants alike.
The moral case is obvious: it is wrong to turn away people facing indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and – in some areas – the prospect of prolonged occupation by Russian forces. Canada has a long, if imperfect, history of welcoming refugees escaping oppression and war, including Russians, Hungarians and others fleeing Soviet communism. Today’s Ukrainian and Russian refugees are no less worthy of consideration.
Many Ukrainian refugees have settled in Europe, particularly Poland and other countries bordering Ukraine. But Canada, with its greater wealth, more flexible labour market (as compared with most European countries), and its need for workers as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, can absorb refugees more easily. In addition, Canada is already home to the largest Ukrainian immigrant community in the West, which can help with integration.
Canada’s government has already taken important steps to welcome Ukrainian refugees, such as allowing them to stay in the country for up to three years (which can potentially be extended), and offering work permits. More recently, Ottawa announced additional measures for those coming through this temporary program including targeted charter flights, short-term income support and temporary hotel accommodations for up to two weeks. But while Canadian policy on Ukrainian refugees is ahead of that of the United States in many respects, more can be done, including making legal residency status and work permits permanent, creating a distinct pathway to permanent residency for Ukrainians who wish to stay here permanently and offering the full slate of services extended to refugees. Recent exemptions to those of a certain age from the “biometrics” requirement to provide fingerprints is a step in the right direction. But the requirement should be abolished for everyone, given that finding a qualified fingerprinting facility while fleeing a war zone is difficult at best. If necessary, that information can be collected upon arrival in Canada.
Canada should also facilitate a rapid expansion of private-sponsorship Ukrainian refugee programs. Studies have shown the housing, settlement and integration advantages of such programs, which allow groups and individuals to support refugees financially and emotionally for the first year or more. Canada has shown a willingness to allow an unlimited number of Ukrainians through its temporary emergency travel program, and it should similarly remove arbitrary government caps for refugees taking the private-sponsorship route.
While Canada and other countries have done much to help Ukrainian migrants, virtually nothing has been done to assist the many thousands of Russians fleeing Vladimir Putin’s ever-accelerating repression. This neglect is both unjust and strategically short-sighted.
Indeed, opening Western doors to Russian migrants would also help secure victory for liberal democracy in the “war of ideas” against Mr. Putin’s authoritarian nationalism and can “drain Putin’s brain” by denying him the skilled labour he needs for his war machine. It would be a powerful signal of liberalism’s superiority over Putinism, and a counter to Kremlin propaganda to the effect that Western nations are enemies of the Russian people, not just the regime. During the Cold War, Canada and the U.S. welcomed refugees from communism in part for this very reason.
There is much Canada can do to open up access to Russian migrants. A first step might be to allow Russians who have been publicly resisting the war to flee through a special program. There should also be no measures that make it harder for Russians to claim asylum in Canada. Flights should not be barred; those who want to escape the authoritarian regime should have the means to do so.
People are willing to help those fleeing the conflict; a recent Angus Reid Institute poll showed that 80 per cent of Canadians would support admitting an unlimited number of Ukrainian refugees. There should also be popular support for accepting Russians fleeing repression, too. By welcoming both, Canada can simultaneously advance its values and its economic and strategic interests – an opportunity to do well by doing good.
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