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Canada's response to Ukraine crisis reveals racism in immigration system, says lawyer

Responses to this crisis aren't just about geo-politics. It's also about race, says one B.C. immigration lawyer.
The Canadian government has introduced new measures that would welcome an "unlimited" number of Ukrainians seeking refuge.

Last week, the Canadian government announced a way for Ukrainians fleeing Russian attack to settle and work in Canada for up to three years.

The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) is part of the country's commitment to take in an “unlimited” number of Ukrainians seeking refuge abroad, escaping the war with Russia. It's a temporary pathway that waives typical visa requirements like fees and language assessments.

But the Canadian government has been criticized over why similar temporary emergency programs haven't been offered to other groups of people in humanitarian crises, like the most recent crisis in Afghanistan.

In an email statement to Glacier Media, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said Ukrainian nationals and their immediate family members who arrive through these pathways will not be entering as refugees, unlike Afghan nationals.

The IRCC spokesperson explained CUAET was created with considerations, "including Canada’s unique relationship with Ukraine, extensive diaspora and family links and supports that are already in Canada."

"Because Ukraine shares borders with the European Union, and IRCC has many visa offices and visa application centres in neighbouring countries, the department is able to leverage its existing temporary resident visa processes, networks and infrastructure to bring as many Ukrainians as we can to Canada as quickly and safely as possible," the IRCC spokesperson said.

For Muzna Dureid, a Syrian refugee and a member of Refugee Advisory Network of Canada, special programs like CUAET are what she and her colleagues "have been calling for."

“(Canada) needs to ensure that these measures will last forever... and then also be extended to other refugees, not Ukraine only,” she told Glacier Media.

As for the IRCC's efforts to ensure Afghan refugees are able to come to Canada, the spokesperson said the department is trying to secure safe passages for those in Afghanistan with partners in the region. The IRCC noted Canada has no military or diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

"If this was a matter of will, there would be at least 40,000 Afghan refugees here already. But the reality is that this is a multi-year commitment, and every step of the way, there are obstacles facing us that were not present in other large-scale resettlement efforts," said the IRCC. 

Problem with racism in immigration policy: lawyer

Dureid recalls her reaction when she saw reporters like CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata expressing their surprise at a war happening in a “relatively civilized, relatively European city.”

“It hurts for everyone, especially forced migration. Forced displacement could happen to anyone,” says Dureid.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Zool Suleman says that governments in the West will often respond to crises based on their domestic interest. 

He tells Glacier Media race has always been a factor in Canadian immigration and refugee policies.

“Look at Canada's history with the internment, the Komagata Maru, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism. Canada has a problem with racism in its immigration and refugee processing,” Suleman says.

And who the refugee is plays a significant role, he adds.

“Canada does not view the migration of refugees from Ukraine as being threatening to Canada. There's a huge difference between how refugees from other parts of the world, Afghanistan, Syria and Africa are viewed. There's a very clear sense that these refugees could be threatening, that we have to be careful and prudent and secure in terms of how we deal with these refugees," says the lawyer.

The IRCC says their response is based on lessons from previous conflicts and immigration responses. 

"We will also evaluate the results of the newly announced Ukrainian programs to examine what worked and what didn’t work. This will enable us to apply those lessons to future immigration responses, regardless of a country’s racial composition," the federal department said.

Despite Suleman’s criticisms of the way the Canadian government has responded to crises over the years, he too benefited from a special program that allowed people fleeing their home countries to settle in Canada.

Suleman came to Canada as a refugee during the Ugandan Asian crisis in 1972, which will be reaching its 50th anniversary this summer.

“I know what it is like to have troops on the streets. I know what it's like to see people kill. And I very much appreciate that Canada set up a special program for what I refer to as the Ugandan Asians,” he says.