Naomi Alboim is the Senior Policy Fellow at the Canada Excellence Research Chair on Migration and Integration at Ryerson University. Karen Cohl is a consultant specializing in access to justice and immigration policy issues.
It is hard to rationalize the strikingly different approaches the Canadian government has taken to two major refugee crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan.
There have been benefits offered to Ukrainians looking to escape the Russian invasion, but not to Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s takeover, including authorization for emergency travel to enter Canada on a temporary basis with open work permits for up to three years. In addition, the government has promised to develop a family-reunification sponsorship program for both immediate and extended-family members.
There have also been benefits offered to Afghans, but not to Ukrainians, such as special programs for arrival as refugees with permanent residence and entitlement to all associated supports and services.
Certainly, the specific context of a refugee crisis can necessitate unique policy responses. But a common framework should be in place to provide similar support for individuals in crisis, with differences in treatment only where demonstrably justified.
The Canadian government has said that the “temporary residence” approach is justified by the assumption that most Ukrainians will return home. The reality, however, is that many Ukrainian refugees who choose to come to Canada can be expected to stay. No one knows how long the war in Ukraine will last, what the outcome will be, how much destruction will occur and whether or when it will be possible for individuals to return. The large Ukrainian community in Canada provides an added incentive to stay.
Indeed, an example from the past may foreshadow future decisions of Ukrainians coming to Canada. In response to the crisis in Kosovo in 1999, Ottawa initiated emergency airlifts of Kosovars on the expectation that many would return home as soon as the situation abroad was resolved. They were provided with permanent residence to entitle them to supports and services while in Canada. Kosovars were also offered transportation to return home and funding to re-establish themselves there. Despite these incentives to return, and the absence of a significant Kosovar community in Canada, only 30 per cent did so.
It would therefore be well worth providing supports and services that meet the needs of new Ukrainian arrivals. Many people fleeing Ukraine are women with small children, so even with open work permits, they may not start work immediately, and many won’t be able to earn enough money to support the needs of the family. Support from the community will be invaluable in many cases, but it cannot be expected to carry the full load.
Although the federal government has announced that Ukrainians arriving as temporary residents will have access to national settlement services, they are not eligible for federal income support or interim health coverage normally provided to refugees, leaving it up to individual provinces to decide on access to health care, schools and income support.
Afghans, for their part, need emergency travel authorization and reunification of extended-family members. Such measures would help to compensate for the fact that the implementation of the two special programs for Afghan refugees has been slow and rife with problems, and that private-sponsorship applications remain blocked.
Many Afghans are at greatly increased risk from having helped Canada in Afghanistan, and many have fled to neighbouring countries that don’t want them and are unable or unwilling to provide support. Ukrainians are in a horrendous situation, but they are at least being welcomed by EU countries who want and are able to help them. Some Afghans were airlifted to Ukraine from Afghanistan. Yet, even these Afghan refugees are not entitled to Canada’s new policies, which are available only to Ukrainian nationals.
We see no justification for Canada to offer such different treatment to two groups coming to our country at around the same time. Some observers have already begun to wonder if the policy differences have been influenced by race, religion or political benefit, and the lack of limits to the number of Ukrainians being allowed to enter Canada only fuels that argument. The perception is heightened by the fact that crises under way in Africa and elsewhere have gotten no special response at all.
Canada needs a common refugee framework that includes expedited entry and permanent residence, eligibility for supports and services and reunification of extended family members. Fair and equitable responses – for any refugee group – will help people in need of protection to make the transition to a successful life in Canada, no matter how long they choose to stay.
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