Europe is facing a massive new migration crisis because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Canada should prepare to provide asylum to those fleeing the violence, says a Canadian security expert.
“This would be a chance for Canada to really, really step up to the plate,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian in Ukraine who served as the spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe during the height of tensions following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
“Telling Ukrainians: you are welcome in Canada. And, you know, easing of visa rules, temporary stays, that sort of thing.”
Canada has promised to prioritize immigration applications from Ukraine to bring people fleeing the country to safety as quickly as possible, though no specific targets have been set.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also announced the creation of a new hotline Thursday, “for anyone at home or abroad with urgent Ukraine-related immigration questions.”
“We have worked over the past many weeks to prepare exactly for such eventualities,” the prime minister said in a sombre address Thursday.
Bociurkiw spoke Thursday from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where the day started quietly with an orderly procession of local residents lining up at ATM machines and stocking up on supplies at shops before giving way the blast of air raid sirens and “organized panic.”
Public address announcements told people to shelter in place and turn off their gas connections.
Bociurkiw watched a half dozen or so vehicles bearing the last Canadian diplomats depart for the Polish border after they had recently moved to Lviv from the capital Kyiv, which faced heavy bombardment.
Bociurkiw said Western diplomats he spoke to expressed fears that the region could be under threat from columns on Russian tanks in Belarus, so he understood the calculation to leave.
But he predicted Ukrainians themselves would soon be making that decision too. He said many of the residents of Lviv, described as the cultural capital of Ukraine, could be well-suited to new lives in Canada.
“Lviv is the Silicon Valley of this part of Europe. So many talented Ukrainians, many of them having multiple degrees, that sort of thing. They’re exactly the type of immigrants we need in Canada right now. Doctors, tens of thousands of people in the medical industry here are extremely qualified,” Bociurkiw said.
Indeed, more than a million Ukrainians already call Canada home, and in 2016, about four per cent of people in Canada who responded to the census identified as being of Ukrainian descent.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, gravely concerned about the fast-deteriorating situation in Ukraine and the devastating humanitarian consequences it will have, has urged neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to people from Ukraine who seek safety outside the country.
Canada may face a demand to open its borders as well, because it is unclear how long Europe will keep its borders open, or how willing it will be to accommodate what could be an influx of millions of new asylum seekers, Bociurkiw said.
“There is a lot of migrant fatigue, if we can put it that way, in Europe,” he said.
While European countries, including Poland and Germany, are preparing to take in a number of Ukrainians, Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and expert on international affairs, said that arrangement likely won’t be permanent.
He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see an influx of Ukrainian asylum seekers head to Canada.
“I think a lot of Ukrainians are going to think, ‘OK, time for us to move to the West,’ because right now they have visa-free access to the West and the West is welcoming,” Robertson said.
Given the strain on the international community and the people of Ukraine, Canada has to do more than prioritize applications for those fleeing the conflict zones, said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh Thursday.
“We cannot have another scenario like we saw in Afghanistan, where people were fleeing the tragedy in Afghanistan and were unable to arrive in Canada because of challenges in the system that made it so complicated, that made it so difficult for them to apply,” Singh said.
He suggested the government allow Ukrainians to come without a visa, to make the process as easy as possible for people to find safety in Canada.
The government committed to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada when the United States announced it would pull its military forces from the country, ultimately leading the Afghanistan government to fall to the Taliban last August.
The government expects it will take two years to meet that goal, and so far only about 7,885 have arrived on Canadian soil.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has said the difficulty lies in the fact that Canada has no diplomatic presence in the country, and no way to get Afghans out of the country.
“We do believe that is a different situation,” said Nicole Giles, assistant deputy minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a briefing Thursday.
Canada has close ties with the Ukrainian government that currently still holds power, and Ukraine shares borders with the European Union. IRCC has visa offices and visa application centres in neighbouring counties as well, Giles said.
Giles said the department has prepared extra resources in the area in anticipation of a large influx of requests to come to Canada.
“I do have confidence that we’re prepared to deal with this more quickly than we have ever before,” Fraser said at a news conference Friday.
“Because we’ve been preparing for a number of weeks, I feel that we’re well-equipped to deal with a potential influx of applications in a short period of time.”
The government has agreed to issue single-journey travel documents for Ukrainians and family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents who do not have travel documents.
Ukrainian nationals in Canada can also apply to extend their study or work permits to stay safely in the country, Giles said.
Ontario and British Columbia’s premiers said they’re working with the federal government to make their provinces a safe haven to refugees from Ukraine.
“I’m going to be speaking to the federal government over the weekend and hopefully this afternoon, to see what Ontario can do to speed the process up,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday.
“We will do whatever it takes to make sure that we get as many people here as possible.”
— With files from Nicole Thompson in Toronto
Laura Osman and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press