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Ukrainian Canadians frustrated by federal visa program for loved ones abroad

Some Ukrainian Canadians say they're frustrated by the federal program that's bringing their loved ones to the country, citing cumbersome applications and slow processing times.

Families worried for relatives' safety as the Russian attacks continue

Iryna Khoma is waiting for a visa for her mother and two nieces to be processed by the federal government.  (Submitted by Iryna Khoma)

Some Ukrainian Canadians say they're frustrated by the federal program that's supposed to bring their loved ones to the country, citing cumbersome applications and slow processing times. 

"Every day my heart is broken," said Iryna Khoma, who lives in Mississauga, Ont. "Because you never know whether the next day my family will be alive or die." 

Khoma is among several Ukrainians in Canada CBC News spoke with who are still waiting for the federal government to approve visa applications submitted weeks ago for loved ones displaced by the war. In the meantime, they're worried for their relatives' safety as Russian attacks continue. 

She was visiting her mother and two nieces in Lviv, Ukraine when the war broke out. Since then, she has been trying to bring her family to Canada through the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel program launched by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The website says applications will be processed within 14 days. 

IRCC says it has "received over 140,877 applications from Ukrainian nationals since March 17 and has since approved over 54,000 applications" as of April 20. But according to screen shots Khoma provided to CBC News, she submitted her applications on March 17 and says she has followed up five times since. 

Khoma, left, is pictured here with her mother. (Submitted by Iryna Khoma)

"They say, 'No worries. Everything is fine,'" she said. "Just wait. Just wait. Just wait."

Darya Balyasnikova is also waiting. On March 19, she submitted an application through the same program for her uncle. Balyasnikova's family is from Kyiv but fled at the start of the Russian invasion. 

Her uncle and aunt are living in a homeless shelter in Rome while they wait for the visa application to be processed. 

On April 4, she also applied to bring her grandmother to Canada and hasn't heard back on that application either. 

"Nothing is happening. We're not getting any answers," said Balyasnikova. 

"Canada is saying that they're doing all these great measures to help unite Canadian Ukrainian families here in Canada. It's not happening in reality, unfortunately."

A family snapshot of Darya Balyasnikova's aunt Olena and uncle Paul. Balyasnikova has been trying to get a visa for her uncle since mid-March. Her aunt already has a visa. (Submitted by Darya Balyasnikova)

The emergency travel program leverages "existing temporary resident visa processes, networks and infrastructure to bring as many Ukrainians as we can to Canada as quickly as possible," the IRCC said in a written statement.

"IRCC does not begin to calculate processing times until we receive a complete application with all necessary supporting documents. The processing time does not include the time it takes for an applicant to give their biometrics," the statement reads. . 

At the end of March, CBC News reported long wait times for Ukrainians trying to book a mandatory biometric collection under the same program. 

Balyasnikova said she knows others in the Ukrainian community who are experiencing the same situation, while others have had faster processing times. 

These situations aren't unique, according to Audrey Macklin, a professor in the faculty of law and director of the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto.

"Immigration and refugees, in the big scheme of things, aren't really often a priority," she said.

"It takes somebody on the inside to really push hard for this."

Macklin said there are several layers to the issue, including the allocation of financial and human resources, political will as well as designing programs that will run efficiently. 

"That sometimes requires relinquishing a tight grip on control the IRCC likes to exert over overseas decision making," said Macklin. 

Afghan refugees

Macklin points to the fraction of Afghan refugees who have made it to Canada, compared to the number this country has pledged to resettle, as another example of a bureaucratic bottleneck. 

By the end of March this year, just 10,000 of them had arrived in from Afghanistan. The federal government had committed to bringing 40,000 last August. 

"This is not unique," said Macklin. "In fact, it's even more dire for some other refugee groups like Afghans. We can do better for everybody and we should." 

Macklin says Ottawa streamlined the process for Ukrainian refugees in a way it hasn't for others by not imposing a cap on the number of people who can come and minimizing documentation required for a visa. 

"Having said that, it hasn't apparently allocated enough resources to actually accomplish that expeditiously."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Xing is a journalist for CBC News in Toronto. Email her at Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

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