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Why Ukrainian newcomers are not refugees and why that matters

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This month the New Brunswick government chartered a plane to bring in 170 Ukrainians fleeing the war.

At the airport, the tearful reunions and welcoming hugs looked the same, but despite having travelled to find safety, these newcomers in Canada are not considered refugees.

In March, the federal government created a special program that fast tracks immigration for Ukrainians. The resulting program, called the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel, is different from any other program to date.

People coming in through this program are considered temporary residents. This means they can work and study in Canada for three years. However, unlike refugees, they don’t have permanent residency when they land, they don’t get provincial social assistance, would have to pay international students fees if they want to go to university, and at first had no settlement support.

Moncef Lakouas, president of the Multicultural Council of New Brunswick, said the government’s decision to do it this way confuses him. He said the barriers that come with being a temporary resident could make settling more difficult. 

“I ask that question every single day … What’s the difference between what’s happening in Ukraine versus Syria and Afghanistan? Well, they’re not prosecuted by their own government, but there’s still a bomb that’s going to fall.”

Why Ukrainian newcomers are not refugees and why that matters
Moncef Lakouas, president of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, says because the new program is based on one designed for temporary workers, the government has had to adjust and make exceptions to make it fit the needs of people fleeing war. (Submitted by Moncef Lakouas)

The answer lies with the Ukrainian community, according to the federal immigration minister’s office.

Aidan Strickland, press secretary for the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said refugee status is permanent, and the Ukrainian community wanted a temporary solution.

If a refugee returns to their country after settling in Canada their status would be revoked, she said.

Ukrainians arriving in Canada through this program can travel freely, and after the three years, they can apply for permanent residence.

“In the conversations with the Ukrainian community, specifically the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress, they really made it clear that many of the Ukrainians coming to Canada will want to return home when it’s safe to do so,” she said.

“Because they really feel like that’s going to be an option for them, they feel like they’re going to be able to win this war and they feel that in a couple of years they’ll be able to return.” 

The refugee process also takes longer, she said. 

“Initiatives in Afghanistan and Syria can take years to implement,” she said.

‘I’m in favour of this program’

Ivan Zakharenkov, president of the Ukrainian Association of Saint John, came to Canada from Ukraine 20 years ago, and is hosting three families who have arrived through the new program this month.

He said it’s inaccurate to say that all Ukrainian people in New Brunswick have the same opinion about this issue, but he personally believes the temporary arrangement works. 

“I don’t think that Ukrainians, at least the ones that I’ve spoken to that are thinking about moving to Canada, want this ‘never-come-back’ situation,” he said. “But they also want to have an opportunity in this country.

“I’m in favour of this program.”

He said people who aren’t able to work immediately, don’t have English proficiency, have many children and don’t have savings may need the support that comes with a refugee program. This new program is making it easier and faster for people who don’t need these supports to come to Canada, he said.

Strickland said Ukrainians applying through the expedited program don’t have to meet any specific work experience, language or education targets to be approved. 

“Individuals are still subject to security screening,” she said. 

Since the program was introduced, a few changes were made to address issues that come with being a temporary resident, Strickland said. The federal government created an exception allowing Ukrainian newcomers to access settlement services like language classes. 

They also at first did not receive any financial assistance, but later the program was changed to provide a one-time cheque of $3,000 for adults and $1,500 per child. People arriving on chartered flights can also get accommodations for 14 days until they find a new home.

Why Ukrainian newcomers are not refugees and why that matters
Ukrainian newcomers arriving on chartered planes don’t get the assistance offered to refugees, but they don’t have to follow some rules required of refugees either. (Radio-Canada)

On the provincial side, immigration department spokesperson David Kelley said the province contributes funds to settlement agencies.

“Should individuals need greater services, government is ready to consider options for assistance,” he said.

Opportunities New Brunswick is also connecting newcomers with employers, he said.

Zakharenkov said 7.7 million Ukrainians have left the country and are distributed throughout Europe. Close to 200,000 of them filled out the application to get to Canada through this program.

He said if he could give any advice to Ukrainians considering coming to Canada, it’s not to underestimate how big a move it is, despite it being temporary.

“A rocket landed today two blocks away from my aunt and uncle. And they’re still thinking that this is going to be over in a couple of days or couple of weeks,” he said.

“The decision to move to Canada is permanent, with the opportunity in the future to go back to your country any time that you want when the things are settled. I think that the immigration in this particular program allows you to do that, but you need to make a firm decision that you are establishing yourself in this new country.”

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