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Immigration Minister Sean Fraser speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Feb. 14.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Opposition parties say the Liberal government’s streamlined immigration program for Ukrainians creates a two-tiered, racialized system that prioritizes Ukrainian immigrants over refugees from other conflict zones, including Afghanistan.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser appeared before the House of Commons immigration committee Thursday, where he faced questions about the differences between the government’s new special program and its dedicated refugee resettlement initiatives. During the meeting, Conservative committee member Brad Redekopp accused the government of prioritizing Ukrainian immigrants over Afghan refugees.

“Under your watch, it seems like you’ve set up a racialized system, a two-tiered system, where white Europeans come in faster than people from Afghanistan. How do you explain that?” Mr. Redekopp asked the minister.

Mr. Fraser rejected Mr. Redekopp’s claim, saying the situation in Ukraine demands a different response. He noted that Ukrainians can find their way to other Western countries for Canadian processing and biometrics screening more easily than Afghans.

“It has more to do with their ability to leave Ukraine, compared to … those who don’t have that ability to leave Afghanistan, than it does a decision by the federal government to be more kind to one group of people than another,” Mr. Fraser said.

He added that the government opted to offer streamlined immigration measures to Ukrainians, rather than a dedicated refugee program, because European counterparts and the Ukrainian Canadian community have indicated that most Ukrainians who come to Canada will want to eventually return home. This is not the case with people coming from Afghanistan, he said, hence the need for a refugee program.

“With respect to Afghanistan, I wish the circumstances were the same. I don’t have the same hope that it will be safe for the people that we are welcoming permanently as refugees to return home one day, despite their potential desire to do so, and that’s allowed us to create difference responses for the unique circumstances.”

Jenny Kwan, NDP immigration critic, also said the government has made it easier for Ukrainians compared with refugees from other countries. She noted what witnesses have told the committee regarding the discrepancy.

“They all said that they support the special measures for Ukraine, but what they’re concerned about is that it’s not being applied elsewhere. All the witnesses agree that government should extend those special immigration measures to other regions also experiencing conflict, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Hong Kong, et cetera,” Ms. Kwan said during the committee meeting.

Mr. Fraser said he wants to see the impact of the special measures for Ukrainians first before considering any similar streamlined programs.

Last year, the government committed to resettling 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan, and so far more than 9,500 have arrived in Canada since August. Much like the Liberal government’s Syrian refugee resettlement program, Afghan refugees have access to federal services and the Resettlement Assistance Program.

More than 10,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada since Jan. 1. Most travelled to Canada under their own devices before the government announced the special immigration measures last week, Mr. Fraser said.

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The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel eliminates most of the normal visa requirements and allows Ukrainians to stay in Canada for up to three years if they pass a background check and security screening. The measures are offered through the immigration stream; as a result, Ukrainians are not considered refugees and will not have access to the same support.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress recently called on the federal government to implement departure and arrival plans to assist Ukrainians with travel to Canada, provide financial support for a transitional period and encourage provincial governments to recruit and sponsor displaced people. The UCC is also urging the government to provide funding for settlement agencies, which could help Ukrainians co-ordinate transport, housing and health care and assist with work permit applications.

The government is in the process of setting up a family reunification program that would allow relatives in Canada to sponsor family members from Ukraine to move here permanently. Details are expected in the coming weeks.

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