Non-citizens of Ukraine don't qualify for temporary refuge in Canada

Masouma Tajik fled Taliban rule in Afghanistan in August, leaving her life and family behind at only 22 years old, carrying just one backpack.

Canada needs to acknowledge 'vulnerable communities are having a harder time leaving the country,' says Singh

African residents of Ukraine wait at the platform inside the railway station in Lviv in western Ukraine Sunday. Ukrainians who have fled Russian aggression can come to Canada temporarily for a period of two years — but the program does not apply to non-Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Masouma Tajik fled Taliban rule in Afghanistan in August, leaving her life and family behind at only 22 years old, carrying just one backpack. 

Last week, she left the new life she had built for herself over the past six months in Ukraine with only that same backpack in hand.

"I was so sleepless and tired and I was just looking for a way to get out of Lviv, to get to the border," she said. 

Afraid to spend what little money she had on food and exhausted after several sleepless nights, Tajik made her way to Poland with the help of volunteers, under the terrifying din of air-raid sirens.

Her escape from Lviv, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland bore ghastly similarities to her flight from her home in the Herat province of Afghanistan months earlier.

The Canadian government is allowing Ukrainians who have fled Russian aggression to come to Canada temporarily for a period of two years — an effort to help "those who need a safe haven while the war ravages their homeland," Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced last week.

But Fraser's office says that, for now, the program is only open to Ukrainian citizens. That means Tajik cannot apply. 

"I just need legal status. I just need a pass so that I could get somewhere stable," said the now 23-year-old data scientist in an interview. 

Non-citizens of Ukraine will still be given priority status if they apply to come to Canada through other immigration streams. 

Several advocates and experts say nationality should not be a consideration when helping people to flee violence. 

Vulnerable groups struggle to exit Ukraine

Will Tao, a British Columbia-based immigration and refugee lawyer, said hundreds of Afghan refugees escaped to Ukraine last year, only to find themselves in yet another war zone.

"I'm hoping that our policy isn't strictly limited to citizenship, that residents in Ukraine prior to this can also factor in, and that we can accommodate some of those folks," he said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees said refugees who resided in Ukraine are in an extremely vulnerable situation now. 

Executive director Janet Dench said their situation "is more precarious" now and reports say some refugees and temporary residents in Ukraine face extra difficulty leaving Ukraine. 

People evacuated from Afghanistan disembark from a Ukrainian military plane at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv on Aug. 22, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout)

Fraser's office said in a written statement that all policy decisions are made with safeguards in place to protect against bias and to ensure accessibility for those who need it. 

But NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said this won't adequately offer protections to people without Ukrainian citizenship. 

"We need to change that in terms of nationality and to make it a clear definition about people who are vulnerable," he said. 

"We need to acknowledge that vulnerable communities are having a harder time leaving the country, like the LGTBQ community and racialized communities that are just finding it very difficult right now, and they're not getting the support they need." 

Other countries are experiencing similar dilemmas in the face of what is being described as Europe's biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Racialized minorities

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said 1.5 million people have fled the country so far. 

The European Union activated a 2001 directive last week that means member states will provide immediate protection for Ukrainians and third country nationals with refugee or permanent residence status in Ukraine. 

People without citizenship or long-term status in Ukraine are largely racialized minorities, said Juliana Wahlgren, a member of the European Commission's expert group on migration, Integration, and asylum. 

Often, they are asylum seekers who are still waiting to be granted safety, students or people with short-term work visas. Some of those people are not able to return to their home countries. 

"If you have to provide protection based on the massive influx (of displaced people) and the risk of harm, [that] should be applied for anyone coming from that situation, not based on the nationality," said Wahlgren, who is also the acting director of the European Network Against Racism.

The EU's decision to offer a temporary safe haven to people displaced by the conflict is a good one, Wahlgren said. 

"What is bad is the double standard," she said. The UNHCR has urged countries to take an inclusive approach and grant the same safety and security to everyone fleeing Ukraine.