Temporary 'homestays' in Canada could be a risky but necessary solution for Ukrainians fleeing war
Canadians hoping to welcome Ukrainian familes aren't being vetted by the government
When Lavina Gilliland had her first FaceTime call with the Ukrainian mother and child who will soon be sharing her Calgary home, she asked them how they could place so much trust in complete strangers on the other side of the world.
"Her comment to me was quite moving," Gilliland told CBC News. "She said, 'We've had to learn to trust because that's going to be our only way to survive.'"
Gilliland met the 35-year-old woman and her 10-year-old daughter on the networking site icanhelp.host, which is helping to connect Ukrainians fleeing the war with prospective host families across the world.
Gilliland and her husband are among hundreds of Canadians on the site advertising temporary "homestays" for Ukrainians in need.
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More than a week after creating her profile, she said she's been getting a steady stream of about two to four requests per day from Ukrainians looking for a safe place to land in Canada.
She said she expects the mother and daughter — who have no personal connections to Canada — to arrive from Poland within the coming weeks. The woman's husband stayed behind in Ukraine. Gilliland also has helped to arrange accommodations for a Ukrainian family of six, who will be living in a neighbour's unoccupied home.
An estimated four million people have fled Ukraine over the past month.
Connections made over informal and unregulated networks like the one used by Gilliland could play an important role in the temporary settlement of Ukrainians in Canada. But immigration experts and the federal government say that approach comes with hazards.
Unlike the families and community groups that welcome government-assisted refugees, Canadians opening their homes to Ukrainians aren't vetted by the government and may have no experience or training in newcomer settlement.
Christina Clark-Kazak, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said that while such private arrangements are well-intentioned and may be necessary under the circumstances, they come with a risk of "abuse, exploitation and harm."
"There are definitely risks for families signing up on this website, and there are risks for people that are agreeing to house people coming in," Gilliland said.
Ottawa trying to safely capture goodwill of Canadians
Speaking to CBC News, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser praised Canadians for offering an "enormous amount of goodwill" to fleeing Ukrainians.
But he said he's also troubled by the possibility that some Ukrainians desperate to escape the danger at home might be vulnerable when they arrive here.
"Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadians want to do the right thing and to help, there may be people who present a safety risk to the new arrivals, or there may be people who don't know what they're getting into," Fraser said.
"We've been thinking recently on how to make sure that we capture that goodwill in a way that doesn't put people at risk."
Fraser said he's had conversations recently with his European counterparts about the potential threats facing fleeing Ukrainians — including the possibility of falling victim to human trafficking.
To minimize the chances of abuse and exploitation, Fraser said, the government is exploring what he called a "coordinated portal" to connect Canadians to incoming Ukrainians.
That system could include safeguards, such as criminal record checks for potential host families. Fraser offered no details on when it could be launched.
"They need to figure out a faster way of vetting people," Gilliland said.
Questions remain about other key services
Ottawa has approved more than 12,000 applications for temporary visas under the emergency program for Ukrainian refugees. Fraser said the government has received more than 65,000 applications so far.
The Ukrainians who arrive under the program will have access to some services not typically available to temporary residents, such as language training and job assistance — but concerns remain about access to some critical services.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress has called on Ottawa to guarantee Ukrainian refugees will have access to services meeting basic needs.
"This includes, first and foremost, a safe way to get to Canada and then a safety net that includes housing and health services," the organization said in a media statement.
Ottawa has said its strategy to welcome Ukrainians is evolving and will adapt to their needs as they arrive.