As millions of Ukrainian refugees flee the Russian invasion, flooding into neighbouring countries, Canada’s border agency says 3,368 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada since the start of the war.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is facing calls to make it easier for Ukrainians to travel to Canada by lifting visa requirements – as other countries have – and co-ordinating a special airlift effort from the region.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau said the government will start accepting applications for its new streamlined immigration program for Ukrainians soon. However, he would not commit to an airlift.
“If there is sufficient demand that requires us to do more, like sending airlifts, we will look at that,” Mr. Trudeau said during a news conference in Alliston, Ont.
Ukraine’s neighbours have taken in the majority of the more than three million Ukrainian refugees since Russia invaded the country three weeks ago, with more than 1.8 million people crossing into Poland alone and hundreds of thousands into other surrounding countries.
Among those who travelled to Poland is a 17-year-old named Anton, who left central Ukraine on his own after his town was hit by Russian rockets. He’s trying to get to Canada.
Reached by The Globe and Mail in Warsaw by phone on Wednesday, Anton described navigating a bureaucratic maze to apply for a visa so he can join his cousin in Victoria. The main obstacle was getting an appointment to provide biometrics, which is required before leaving for Canada.
“It’s not as easy as it could be,” said Anton, who is staying with a Polish-Canadian family that has taken in nine other refugees in Konstancin-Jeziorna, south of the capital. “You have to follow a lot of steps.”
The Globe is only using the teen’s first name because of concerns for family in Ukraine.
Figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency show an increase in the number of Ukrainians who travelled to Canada since the conflict broke out. From Feb. 21 to 27 – the first week of the war – 617 Ukrainians arrived in Canada, followed by 1,179 between Feb. 28 and March 6, and another 1,572 from March 7 to 13. The figures include Ukrainian nationals who require a visa to enter Canada and those with Canadian permanent residence.
Mr. Trudeau visited Europe last week to meet with his European counterparts, including Andrzej Duda. The Polish President said he spoke with Mr. Trudeau about the possibility of an airlift to fly displaced Ukrainians directly to Canada.
“This is the issue of negotiations. Who will give the planes for people to travel to Canada? This is the technical issue,” Mr. Duda told reporters last week.
Mr. Duda also called on Canada to drop its visa requirements for Ukrainian travellers.
If Anton’s experience is any indication, the current rules make it more difficult for refugees on the ground.
Kasia Smith, the Polish-Canadian woman who has taken Anton in, is helping the boy with the process. Anton left behind his 19-year-old brother who, as an adult, is required to stay in Ukraine as part of the resistance, and his mother, who refused to leave her eldest son alone in a war zone.
Ms. Smith called the Canadian visa application centre in Warsaw on Monday but no one answered, so she and Anton showed up in person, only to see hundreds of people waiting in line. “It was pandemonium,” she said.
As it turned out, Anton needed an appointment in order to provide his biometrics. After multiple attempts to secure a booking, Ms. Smith found an opening for him. Anton provided his biometrics on Wednesday and is hoping his application will be processed within the next two weeks.
Over the weekend, Andrii Bukvych, Ukraine’s chargé d’affaires in Ottawa, told CTV News that the government can do more to expedite its immigration process.
Meanwhile, a few of the war’s most vulnerable victims arrived at Toronto’s SickKids hospital on Wednesday. On Monday, The Globe reported that the federal government expedited paperwork so Ukrainian children who have cancer, and their families, could get the required temporary-residence permits to come to Canada.
The opposition is also asking the government to waive visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees. Canada has granted citizens of more than 65 other countries and jurisdictions visa-free access.
“We’ve actually been calling for visa-free travel for more than a year,” said Jasraj Singh Hallan, the Conservative immigration critic. “It’s going to take away the barrier of trying to get here.”
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the government looked at waiving the visa requirements but decided against it because it would take 12 to 14 weeks to make the change.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said that if Mr. Fraser knew it would take that long, the visa requirements should have been lifted as soon as Russian aggression intensified in the region.
Mr. Fraser’s press secretary, Aidan Strickland, said Ukrainian visa applications are being prioritized and processed within 14 days, compared with the typical time frame of 60 to 94 days.
One federal program, the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, is a streamlined process that is expected to formally launch later this week for Ukrainians seeking short-term refuge. It will eliminate most of the normal visa requirements.
The program could allow Ukrainians to stay in Canada for up to two years if they pass a background check and security screening.
Canada is also setting up a family reunification program allowing relatives in this country to sponsor Ukrainians who want to move here permanently. Details on this program will be announced in the coming weeks.
As the programs get up and running, the government is prioritizing permanent and temporary-resident applications for people with a primary residence in Ukraine who want to come to Canada.
With a report from Colin Freeze
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