Canada's response to crisis in Ukraine shows gap in our approach to humanitarianism

Immigration in Canada has mainly focused on our own changing economic and population needs. But immigration should also be about the changing needs of the rest of the world.

It's time immigration efforts focus on the changing needs of the world, as opposed to our own

Canada's response to the crisis in Ukraine and how it is helping Ukrainian refugees serves as an example of humanitarianism done right, according to immigration lawyer Omer Khayyam. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

This Opinion piece is by Omer Khayyam, an immigration lawyer based in Saskatoon.

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Immigration in Canada has mainly focused on our own changing economic and population needs. But immigration should also be about the changing needs of the rest of the world.

As an immigration lawyer, I see many people facing huge challenges in their road to come to Canada.

In the past few years, I met a Saskatoon man from Eritrea who wanted to sponsor his wife to come join him in this country. He was a quiet man, always smiling, but his depression was palpable. He knew what she faced, as he too had lived as a refugee before coming to Canada.

When civil war broke out in Ethiopia's Tigray region, his wife was displaced from her refugee camp and had to walk for days without food in a semi-arid desert. After losing contact with him for a month, she made it to safety and re-established communication. At that point, immigration officials were able to give her application more attention, but did not waive requirements and travel document formalities, which ate up time before she could finally come to Canada. 

Today her refugee camp is destroyed, having been looted and vandalized by belligerents in the Tigray civil war. 

Even when matters of life and death are reported in the news media, refugees can face huge challenges getting here. Thankfully, in its response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Canada is cutting through the red tape that my Eritrean and Afghan clients have had to deal with. 

Ukrainians aren't asked to have passports or even to pay fees. It's a clear sign Canada is transcending its immigration legislation from its current economic focus to using immigration as a tool for humanitarianism.

Immigration officials do not automatically triage cases of life and death. Cases have to be brought to their attention with direct advocacy and assistance of compassionate organizations. Only in life or death situations are the heartstrings sufficiently plucked.

Some countries are taking in millions of refugees displaced by war and conflict, writes immigration lawyer Omer Khayyam, who asks what more Canada could do to help global citizens. (Karel Prinsloo/The Associated Press)

However, right now, Canada is working around its own legislation — bypassing the normal refugee resettlement or asylum seeker processes — for the benefit of Ukrainians, letting them work for permanent residence and issuing electronic visas. 

Why now? Canada's government did not act this way with my Eritrean client when the civil war broke out in Ethiopia. 

The harsh reality is we change our definition of who is vulnerable and who is a potential threat, but laws, regulations and policies are supposed to apply to all equally. 

Ukrainian-Canadians were once placed in internment camps in the First World War as "enemy aliens," but today we are more sympathetic to their plight. Actively seeking out the most vulnerable and the weakest, and questioning our sympathies and prejudices, strengthens our civil society. Tomorrow, it may be us worrying about Russia in our far north. 

Immigration cannot simply be about taking help or importing talent. It has to also be about Canada's place in the global village and giving back in a time when taking will only lead to less for the future. If countries like Turkey can care for four million refugees in a struggling economy, would it hurt Canada to take in more refugees?

Individuals have shown us a path on what is possible.

In August 2021, U.S. veterans went without the help of their government to rescue Afghan comrades left behind after the U.S.'s withdrawal. In 2015, the people of Saskatchewan opened their hearts for Syrian refugees, even in small town Saskatchewan. 

I remember stories of entire houses being given rent-free to Syrian refugees to stay in. They are doing so once again for Ukrainians. Canadians and people of other nationalities are now fighting in Ukraine without the support of their governments.

The reality is the public wants to help and sacrifice more than we think, but our laws, procedures and politics limit our generosity.

Canadians aren't their government. Legislation, policy and governments don't possess hearts — people possess hearts. If Canada were to give ordinary Canadians, not just businesses, an opportunity to help displaced peoples come to Canada, whether Ukraine or its neighbours or countries in the global south, Canadians would definitely help. 

Perhaps the problem is that, given the opportunity, Canadians would unquestionably be more generous than our government would allow.

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