Readying for refugees Axworthy argues ‘proactive and energetic action’ necessary for Ukraine in order to avoid repeat of chaotic Afghanistan exit

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government says it’s making it easier for Ukrainians to reach Canada, but refugee advocates want the federal government to do much more to prepare for a humanitarian airlift.

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OTTAWA — The Trudeau government says it’s making it easier for Ukrainians to reach Canada, but refugee advocates want the federal government to do much more to prepare for a humanitarian airlift.

“We have to learn a little bit from what happened in Afghanistan,” said Lloyd Axworthy, who chairs the World Refugee and Migration Council.

“I’m disappointed that there isn’t a bit more pick-up.”

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Lloyd Axworthy in Kyiv in 2019.

Manitoba’s Ukrainian community says it’s not aware of many people who want to leave Europe, but Axworthy argues it’s clear that Russia will target politicians, journalists and civil-society activists if it takes over Kyiv.

“We need to establish a lifeline for those people fairly quickly,” he said.

Axworthy said he fears a repeat of last fall, when Canada set up a chaotic, last-minute program to air-lift Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of Kabul, a program advocates had called for months earlier.

CP A woman pushes a baby stroller after crossing the border from Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania which is seeing an influx of refugees from the country as many flee Russia's attacks. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

“It’s the kind thing that really calls for very proactive and energetic action.”

Axworthy was Jean Chrétien’s immigration and foreign-affairs minister in the late 1990s. In 2019, he oversaw Canada’s election-observation delegation in Ukraine during its presidential vote.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Monday that more than 500,000 refugees have been forced to flee Ukraine.

CP A humanitarian centre for refugees coming from Ukraine at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, in Palalanca, Moldova. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)

Manitoba has the largest percentage of Canadians who claim Ukrainian roots, and Axworthy’s group wants Ottawa to tap into those communities for a fast-tracked, private-sponsorship program, for Ukrainians who either could be targeted by Russia or have medical issues that won’t get adequately treated during a war.

“We should be taking the lead, not just on our efforts but in trying to get international efforts mobilized,” said the Winnipegger, who argued that Ukrainians would likely return home from various countries once it’s safe to do so.

His group called Saturday on Ottawa to take six steps to make sure people living in Ukraine can seek asylum, from organizing flights from Europe to Canada, to deploying visa officers to border zones.

CP Refugees from Ukraine sleep in a tent at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, in Palalanca, Moldova. Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing from war by crossing their borders to the west in search of safety. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)

Métis federation donates to Ukraine

The Manitoba Métis Federation has donated $100,000 of its business revenues to the Canadian Red Cross for humanitarian relief in Eastern Europe.

“We must do what we can to support the millions who have been and will continue to be displaced by Russian aggression,” wrote federation President David Chartrand, who urged people to also contribute before Ottawa stops matching donations.

He said the federation will also display Ukrainian flags on buildings and digital billboards, in recognition of the cultural ties that country’s diaspora has forged with the Red River Métis.

Instead, Ottawa dropped visa processing fees for Ukrainians on Monday, and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told reporters he had “beefed up” consul staffing in the capitals of countries that neighbour Ukraine.

“We’re working with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to develop the best path forward and working with different provincial counterparts as well to understand the opportunities to do this the right way,” he said.

The federal Conservatives have called on Canada to drop its visa requirement entirely, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed open to pursuing.

“We have several concrete measures that have accelerated the processing of applications … but we are also looking at all the different tools that we could use to best help those who want to come to Canada,” Trudeau said.

Manitoba has, so far, contributed $150,000 to the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress for humanitarian aid to displaced families and refugees, a statement from Premier Heather Stefanson said Monday.

The province will take in Ukrainian refugees “looking for a safe haven,” and will expedite Ukrainian immigration applications through the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program, the statement said.

It’s too soon to expect a flood of refugees from Ukraine but Canada needs a plan, said Winnipeg’s Ostap Skrypnyk, vice-president of the Canada Ukraine Foundation and former Ukrainian Canadian Congress executive director.

“We’re preparing for that eventuality and trying to work with the federal government to see what could be done in that regard,” said Skrypnyk.

“Right now, these people are fairly comfortable” staying in Europe, he said.

If the situation worsens and refugees from Ukraine begin arriving in Canada, there are Manitobans who want to help, he said.

Some have been contacting the Ukrainian Canadian Congress nationally and here in the province about offering to take people from Ukraine into their homes, said Skrypnyk.

“I got an email last night about a woman in Beausejour that says she’s willing to give her spare room for a refugee family, ” he said. “Right now there is no big influx of people on the immediate horizon.”

Axworthy’s group has also called on Canada to make sure that neighbouring countries continue allowing people living in Ukraine to claim asylum, amid reports of Ukrainians and other foreigners being denied entry to countries like Poland.

Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said she’s been bringing up that concern with Eastern European countries, and would do so again in a Tuesday visit to Poland.

“Should they see massive flow of people at their borders, (I told leaders) that Canada could help,” she told the Free Press during a press conference from Geneva.

“Canada will play its part. And of course, we will make sure that Ukrainians seeking refuge will have a place to stay in Canada.”

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

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