Canada

Daphne Bramham: Open doors for Ukrainians, even as Canada lags on promises to Afghans and Syrians

Canada’s new open-door policy for Ukrainians fleeing the war is welcomed by refugee advocates, but they question its fairness.

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Canada has flung open the doors to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, eliminating quotas and waiving normal requirements for passports and visa fees.

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The announcement came two weeks after almost non-stop media coverage of the Russian attack and the flight of nearly one million refugees, with estimates that as many as four million of Ukraine’s 44 million people might soon be on the move.

The unprecedented Feb. 24 invasion has been closely followed by Canadians, especially the 1.4 million with Ukrainian roots, which includes Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

It’s important to remember that the majority of Canadians polled before the invasion told Research Co. they supported immigration. Three-quarters said they believed that “the hard work and talent of immigrants makes Canada better.”

But Canada’s capability to process and settle applicants isn’t infinite and humanitarian crises are becoming increasingly common. This is Schindler’s List on a global scale. And it raises uncomfortable questions about fairness as the chilling triage plays out.

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Should there be different rules for different refugees? Who should come first — is it those in the direst situations? Or those with the most vocal and numerous supporters in Canada?

Or is it those who most closely resemble some out-of-date version of what Canadians look like, how they act or who they pray to?

The Canadian government insists that the focus on the Ukrainians will not take away from efforts to resettle 40,000 of the most vulnerable Afghans after last August’s chaotic fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

Among them are interpreters, lawyers and others who worked for the Canadian military, judges, human rights activists, journalists and LGBTQ people. But even before the urgent need to help Ukrainians, only 7,550 had arrived in Canada.

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Canada has also yet to meet its promise of settling 60,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees, many of whom still languish in crowded camps.

We’re currently seeing non-stop images from Ukraine and the border areas. Only the hardest of hearts can’t be moved by Ukrainians’ plight.

But a day after Canada announced its Ukrainian policy, a journalist in Kabul emailed me. The Taliban began door-to-door searches there this week.

The woman (who I am not identifying for her protection) is in hiding with her husband, who worked for the overthrown government. They have lost everything and fear the worst. They’re trying to get to Canada.

Since August, she said four of her office colleagues were “brutally killed by the Taliban. … Some other journalists and civil society activists were abducted, disappeared and killed.”

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Just a few hours before Canada released its Ukraine policy, Mohammad Popal of the Canadian-based Journalists for Human Rights, said an Afghan journalist had been detained following a house search.

The group is working to bring 500 journalists, activists and others who fit Canada’s criteria for special protection to Canada. So far, 388 have been extracted with help from another Canadian non-profit, Aman Lara. Of those, 115 have been permanently settled in Canada.

“I’m really sorry for what is happening in Ukraine in terms of the refugees,” Popal said from Toronto. “I’m also a refugee. I know how it is hard to be a refugee. And it’s very hard to be a refugee … the pain, that suffering, the conflict and all these things.”

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But he said it’s unfair that those options aren’t open to all refugees and described it as a “totally political move.”

Ukraine’s western borders are open. Refugees are being welcomed as they cross and other European countries, as well as the United States, Canada and even Japan, have loosened their usual restrictions and offered haven.

But only two intermediary countries now accept Afghan refugees — Iran and Pakistan. And, Popal said, “Once you’re in Pakistan, you’re in a cage.”

More than 100 of the 235 Afghans on the Journalists for Human Rights list are in limbo in Pakistan; 112 remain in Afghanistan.

Last week, Afghanistan’s borders were briefly closed before the Taliban rescinded that order. Still, women cannot leave without a male escort and everyone must provide a reason for leaving along with a passport and a visa.

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Getting to Pakistan often requires bribing officials to get passports and visas and to get through Afghan checkpoints. It’s Pakistani police, not people with sandwiches and food, who meet them at the border.

Since the fall, Aman Lara has extracted 200 people a week. It focuses on getting former employees and contractors for the Canadian military out of Afghanistan with their families.

But at that rate, it will take four years to get 40,000 Afghans to safety compared to the one million Ukrainians who fled in little more than two weeks.

“I find that unacceptable especially because I don’t think we have four years to do it,” executive director Brian Macdonald said from Halifax.

Why? Because with western countries’ attention diverted to Russia’s war, the Taliban are becoming more like their old selves. More than 95 per cent of Afghans can’t get enough food and more than 23 million are starving.

Canadians have an enduring desire as a country of immigrants to welcome others. But even that goodwill is not unlimited if governments don’t spend it fairly and wisely.

For now, the preoccupation is getting as many of those in need to Canada as quickly as possible. But the bigger challenge comes once they’re here as it will take a countrywide effort to support them so that they can become full, participating members of Canadian society.

More about that in my next column.

[email protected]

Twitter: @bramham_daphne

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