Dispatch from Ukraine: Canada doesn't seem to know what 'emergency' really means
How long does the government of Canada think people fleeing an invasion of their country have to wait on a callback?
By: Joti Heir
“I don’t know how long it will take, they don’t tell you, it just says someone will contact you for the appointment,” says Katie about her application to get a Canadian visitor visa under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) program.
Katie is one of the thousands trying to navigate the CUAET program from her war-torn country to get to safety in Canada. CUAET offers Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country a chance to stay in Canada for up to three years on a visa, instead of the usual six months. These people, though, need help quickly — in many cases, immediately. How fast they can get that help with the Canadian program is anyone’s guess. Katie applied in mid-March and has not yet learned when her appointment with the Canadian embassy will be.
While getting an appointment is a hurdle, getting the required biometrics to get the appointment is a bigger challenge. You can’t get the biometrics done in Ukraine because offices are closed … because there is a war in the country.
“I wish they could do something when we could land there and do the biometrics. It is very difficult,” Katie says.
Once you apply for a visa under CUAET, you are supposed to submit your biometrics within 30 days. The only exception to the biometrics requirement is for those 17 or younger, 61 or older, or someone who has applied for a Canadian visa and been approved within the past 10 years. This last category is approved on a case-by-case basis.
Since you can’t get your biometrics done in Ukraine, many Ukrainians are trying in Poland, next door. But Poland is where millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled already. The line-ups outside biometric processing sites are long and start before sunrise.
Katie decided to travel to Paris to get her biometrics done. She could do this because she has a friend there who offered her a place to stay and also because Wizzair, a Hungarian low-cost airline, was offering free flights to Ukrainians.
“Wizzair helped very much for the free flight but Europe is very expensive,” Katie explained. “I could stay with my friend for free for some time, but not forever and food and transportation are expensive.”
Once she completed her biometrics in Paris and submitted them to the Canadian government, Katie said she received no indication of how long she would have to wait to have an appointment with the Canadian Embassy. Although the program has “emergency” in its name, the timeline between application and action is not made clear to the people in flight for their lives. And given the value of the Ukrainian currency versus the Euro (one Ukrainian hryvnia is currently worth three Euro cents), Katie said it was too expensive for her to stay in Paris and wait.
“If I knew how long it can take, maybe I could have stayed longer. But I don’t know so I came back,” she told me.
Katie is now back in Ukraine, and is hoping to find some work. She has been living off savings since the Russian invasion began on February 24. While Katie is from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, she has decided to stay in Lviv, a city close to the Polish border. She says it will make it easier for her to cross the border back into Europe if the Canadian Embassy gives her an appointment.
“I will try to find some work, so I can make money. My savings are finishing," Katie says.
The CUAET website says, “... We’ve created the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel … to help Ukrainians and their family members come to Canada as quickly as possible.”
Quick? Speed doesn’t seem to be part of the equation for refugees applying to this program. Katie applied three weeks ago now. How long does the government of Canada think people fleeing an invasion of their country have to wait on a callback?
“We were in touch with Canadian officials one month before Russia’s invasion,” says former Canadian MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, the head of the Ukrainian World Congress Human Rights Commission. “Clearly [their plan] was not organized and not thought through.”
Wrzesnewskyj says he hears from people on the ground almost hourly about the difficulties and confusion Ukrainian refugees are facing using the emergency program.
“Something has fallen flat,” he said.
If and when Katie hears back, she will then pay to get back to Paris to attend her appointment. She will then have to leave her passport with the Canadian mbassy while they make their decision about whether she qualifies for the emergency program. How long that could take is also unclear. Since she won’t have her passport, though, she will likely not be able to get back into Ukraine. She’ll have to rely on her friend’s generosity for an indefinite period of time. While staying there, she will still need to pay for food and transportation, and the longer she waits, the more cost-prohibitive it will get.
Katie says she does not know anyone in Canada so she doesn’t know what life might look like if she’s accepted there. Her husband cannot leave Ukraine under martial law as he is of military age, but she’s hoping that he will be able to come to join her if she is able to make it to Canada.
“I used to work in social media marketing. I hope I will be able to find something like that. I am willing to learn and train and improve my skills if I can get there.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced additional measures to help Ukrainians fleeing war, like short-term income support and temporary hotel accommodations.
But it’s getting to Canada that’s proving the biggest hurdle. To “flee” means to run away quickly. Refugees trying to flee the war in Ukraine will likely choose to go to the safest place they can get to the fastest. For most, Canada won’t be in the running.
So, while Canada’s program looks good in theory and makes for good headlines, how helpful it is on the ground is questionable. Applicants like Katie, who have some savings and friends to lean on, might be able to outlast Canadian bureaucratic torpor. For most Ukrainian refugees, alas, CUAET is just too damn slow to help.
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