Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is facing calls to grant Ukrainians visa-free access to Canada so they can more easily flee a war with Russia.
The Official Opposition on Thursday called on the government to allow visa-free travel from Ukraine, at least on a temporary basis.
“More than a million Canadians today can trace their ancestry back to Ukraine. As the situation facing Ukraine from Russian aggression continues to become more dire, Canada must take action to support those Ukrainians who want to come to our country,” Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan said.
Canada has granted citizens of more than 60 countries and jurisdictions visa-free access to this country, and while Canadians can visit Ukraine for up to 90 days without a visa, Ukrainians require one to travel to Canada.
“As tensions rise and the threat of a Russian invasion looms, priority must be given to temporarily implementing visa-free travel from Ukraine to Canada and to expedite other current immigration applications from Ukraine nationals,” Mr. Hallan said. He also called on Ottawa to offer a streamlined process for Ukrainian visa holders to extend their stays if they are already in Canada.
NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson echoed this call.
“There is a looming humanitarian disaster in Ukraine and thousands are urgently seeking refuge in Canada,” Ms. McPherson said. “I have spoken with many Ukrainian Canadians who want this prioritized. New Democrats continue to call on the Liberal government to do everything possible to help people fleeing the threat of violence in Ukraine.”
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said it would be unwise for Canada to drop visa requirements for Ukrainians with possible war looming because it could lead to a flood of would-be refugees. “Are we prepared to open our doors to mass arrivals?”
The European Union in 2017 dropped its visa requirement for Ukrainians, and countries throughout Europe are now bracing for a possible influx of asylum seekers. U.S. lawmakers were warned in early February by Biden administration officials that a full invasion of Ukraine by Russia could result in one million to five million Ukrainian refugees.
The federal government on Thursday said Russia’s military aggression toward Ukraine represents a clear threat to the rules-based international order.
But it did not explain why it has not granted visa-free access to Ukrainians.
“NATO is a defensive alliance … we cannot and we will not stand idly by while a nation seeks to erode international norms that have kept us safe since the end of World War Two,” Defence Minister Anita Anand told reporters in a conference call from a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser’s office was asked Thursday why the government has not granted visa-free access for Ukraine. It did not offer an explanation. However spokesperson Aidan Strickland said Canada has two visa application centres, one in Kyiv and one in Lviv, which are “operating at full capacity” to process requests for study and work permits, applications for temporary residence, permanent residence and proof of citizenship documents.
The intent is to help “Ukrainian nationals who want to study, work, reunite with family, or start a new life in Canada,” she said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and prepare for various scenarios, including increased immigration responses.”
Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, a lobby group representing people of Ukrainian origin in Canada, said it has been asking Ottawa to drop the visa requirement for more than a decade. His group pressed the matter on Wednesday in a submission to the Commons international trade committee.
Last year, Canada and Ukraine set up a working group, which Ottawa said would help “to identify and improve mobility opportunities for Ukrainians seeking to come to Canada, once COVID-19 restrictions are removed.”
Andrii Bukvych, the chargé d’affaires at Ukraine’s embassy in Ottawa, said his country doesn’t want to rush Canada. It would however like to see more progress from this working group. “We have to meet more often,” he said.
He said about 23 per cent to 30 per cent of visa applications from Ukrainians are rejected by Canada each year, a rate he noted is higher than many other countries in the Eastern Hemisphere. About 20,000 Ukrainians obtain visas to visit Canada each year, he said.
Mr. Bukvych said it seems illogical that given the “special relationship” between Canada and Ukraine that “we do not make it easier to travel from country to country.”
For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.