Ukrainians fleeing war face biometric bottleneck slowing Canadian visa applications

After two weeks in a Kharkiv bomb shelter, Olana Markova and her teenage daughter are stuck in Poland facing Canadian visa delays as part of the process to help those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

Canada's commitment to provide safe haven undermined, immigration lawyer says

Margarita Maslov, left, is hoping to be reunited with her sister Olana Markova, middle, and niece Daria Markova, right, who fled Kharkiv, Ukraine, after the Russian invasion. (Screen Capture/Zoom)

After two weeks in a Kharkiv bomb shelter, Olana Markova and her 15-year-old daughter Daria are stuck in Poland facing Canadian visa delays as part of the process to help those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

"I think we will get a much more peaceful happier life there in Canada," said Daria. "I hope that I will continue my education."

The obstacle they face is booking an appointment to fulfil the visa requirement for biometric collection under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel.

Ukrainians must fulfil it before arriving in Canada and it is an "essential component" of the security screening process, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Margarita Maslov, Olana Markova's sister, said she's tried repeatedly to work her way through the booking system.

"I'm telling you six nights in a row, every single night, I'm trying to book an appointment and there is no chance to book," Maslov said. 

'Canada should 'rethink' screening process, lawyer says

They are not alone in the struggle to get an appointment and the challenge has one expert raising questions about Canada's commitment to helping Ukrainians.

Jamie Liew, a law professor at the University of Ottawa whose background includes immigration law, says Canada should collect biometric information after Ukrainians have travelled here.

"We're now seeing biometrics [are] creating a bottleneck and really serve as a barrier from effective, swift protection," Liew said. "I think Canada should rethink this given what they're seeing on the ground."

She says Canada would still have legal recourse should biometric screening reveal a security issue in Canada.

Jamie Liew, an immigration lawyer in Ottawa, says Ukrainians should have the security screening once they arrive in Canada. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

Limits of temporary residency program

Liew said long wait times have become common across immigration processes and applications.

While the emergency travel process for Ukrainians did waive many typical visa requirements, Liew said biometrics has shown the limit of the flexibility of that temporary residency program. 

"It raises a lot of questions about Canada's commitment to durable refugee protection," Liew said.

Rik Ferguson, a Warsaw resident who has opened his home to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, says he also has tried to navigate the Canadian system for the Markovas to no avail.

"It seems to me that the bottleneck is in the wrong place. If you've got things like transatlantic flights as a funnel, then you could do the biometric collection on arrival in Canada," Ferguson said. 

Ukrainian refugees are seen waiting to give their biometrics outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw, Poland earlier this month. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

To try to limit delays, IRCC said it has deployed more staff to visa application centres in the capitals of Poland, Austria and Hungary while monitoring capacity at visa application centres.

The department also said Ukrainians have been prioritized for "emergency same-day appointments."

Visa applicants normally have 30 days to visit a "biometric collection point" once they receive the instruction letter, but IRCC says an extension is automatic if it takes longer to book an appointment.