After days of appeals from the Ukrainian community to waive visa requirements amid the ongoing war in the eastern European country, Canada’s immigration minister announced Thursday that the federal government will allow an unlimited number of Ukrainian refugees to seek asylum in Canada for at least two years.
The president of the national Ukrainian Canadian Students Union (SUSK), Danya Pankiw, told Canada’s National Observer her organization had been calling on the government to waive visa requirements. She met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his cabinet and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh ahead of the government’s decision Thursday.
She says SUSK had been lobbying for a smoother acceptance process to avoid a backlog at the borders that could further complicate the burgeoning refugee crisis.
Pankiw says the federal decision is good news for the community, but notes the program will take a few weeks to implement.
Yuliya Dumanska, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, says people in the Ukrainian-Canadian community were asking about a refugee program ahead of the decision.
Many Ukrainian-Canadians have families who have sought refuge in Poland, Romania and Hungary and will have to wait for days, maybe weeks, to have their visas processed, she says.
“Some (refugees) have relatives in Canada and they want to come here, but the only way to come is to get a Canadian visa, and only then, can they travel to Canada,” she says.
For days, Dumanska’s phone has been ringing non-stop, she says, with Ukrainian-Canadians worried about their families, especially in the besieged capital city, Kyiv.
Dumanska tells her clients that anybody who wants to apply for a visa must make it to the border because Canada has shut down its visa offices in Lviv and Kyiv, and instead has placed additional Canadian visa workers in Poland to expedite the process. Canadian visa offices in Poland have also increased their capacity, she says.
“The sad part is that a lot of my clients have elderly parents who are 80 years old and older,” Dumanska says, her voice shaky. “They were paying for caregivers in Ukraine, and now it’s a mess because elderly, especially in Kyiv, have been left to care for themselves.
Yuliya Dumanska, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, says her phone has been ringing non-stop with calls from Ukrainian-Canadians worried about their families, especially in the besieged capital city, Kyiv. #Ukraine
“In a situation of war, they are not mobile. They will stay in their apartment, where everybody else will go to a bomb shelter when they hear air sirens.”
First-year University of Toronto student Marta Perehinets says she has spent the past number of days trying to help her cousin in Ukraine find asylum. She says he is a minor and has health problems, otherwise, he would be fighting for the country he loves.
“I don’t have any idea what this stuff means,” she said before the announcement Thursday. “I don’t know how to get a visa, what kind of visa my cousin is eligible for. My poor parents are trying to figure out how to send money and to get my aunt into a safer place.”
She says her cousin is her family’s No. 1 priority and they’ve asked Perehinets to help with the effort. Currently, Perehinets says her cousin is in Poland staying with a family member while they wait for the emergency program to be implemented.
Over a million refugees have crossed the Ukrainian border in the first week of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The United Nations warned the war could cause Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.
“It’s not easy talking to people and telling them that there are limited options,” Dumanska says. “Everybody is worried about their families.”
— With files Laura Osman from The Canadian Press
Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer