Following the release of Canada’s Immigration Levels Plan 2022-2024 on February 14, 2022, the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship announced just one month later on March 14 that it will be supporting Afghan and Ukrainian refugees fleeing from their home countries. 

The Immigration Levels Plan asserts that Canada will set out to receive immigrants “at a rate of about 1% of Canada’s population, including 431,645 permanent residents in 2022, 447,055 in 2023, and 451,000 in 2024.” In a February 2022 news release, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) highlighted the crucial role that immigrants play in Canada’s economy, outlining that this plan will help to “to fill labour market shortages and grow Canada’s economy,” specifically in the post-COVID context.

The Canadian government introduced a special immigration program to accommodate Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, then again for Ukrainian refugees seeking asylum from the recent Russian invasion. While important to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, these adjustments have caused delays that have put into question the justness of the program’s policies, as well as the position of previous applicants who have been pushed back as a result. 

Canada’s Refugee and Asylum Seeking System

Since 1980, roughly 1.1 million refugees from all over the world have come and resettled in Canada, making it one of the leading countries in welcoming refugees and asylum-seekers. Just within the past six years, 150,000 refugees have arrived to Canada. 

Canada’s immigration system allocates services to refugees and asylum seekers through two main programs: the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program and the In-Canada Asylum Program. The former applies to folks outside of the country requesting protection, while the latter is for claims made by folks in the country. 

Refugees are unable to directly apply for resettlement in Canada and are only able to be identified through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or private sponsors. This prerequisite even applies to people who “have a well-founded fear of persecution, or are at risk of torture, or cruel or unusual punishment in their home countries.”

Welcoming Afghan and Ukrainian Refugees to Canada

Initially outlining the acceptance of 20,000 Afghan refugees in August 2021, the resettlement program doubled this number to 40,000 in September 2021, following the Taliban’s takeover. Canada committed to “help ease the burden that Afghanistan’s neighbours are shouldering” and resettle refugees permanently, but has explained that processing all 40,000 applications will be a “multi-year commitment.”

Additionally, the government of Canada has created a dedicated stream for those most vulnerable to persecution in Afghanistan such as “women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters.” 

Similarly, Canada responded to the recent crisis in Ukraine prompted by the Russian invasion. Earlier in March, Canada announced its support through a Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, aimed to be the “fastest, safest, and most efficient way for Ukrainians to come to Canada.” This program will ensure that applications of Ukrainian nationals are prioritized, and, unlike its outlined plan for Afghanistan, it has “no limit to the number of Ukrainians who can apply.” While non-citizens and undocumented persons in Ukraine are still able to apply through other immigration programs, they are ineligible for this emergency stream. 

What does this mean for Canada’s immigration system? 

Although this is an ambitious plan for Canada to accommodate two more crises, the resettlement process has been slowly developing. As a result, Canada had only accepted roughly a tenth of the 40,000 Afghan refugees that it has sought to bring in by the end of 2021. Critics of the plan, such as member of Parliament Jenny Kwan of the New Democratic Party, argued that not only is the Canadian government not prepared to welcome these immigrants in and efficiently resettle them, but its plan to accept these applicants over a two-year period is slow and obtuse. 

The IRCC’s system can be characterized as crowded, long, and delayed. It was reported that by the end of 2021, there were 1.8 million immigration applications in backlog, and as of December 5, 2021, that included 114,046 refugee applications. For example, the current processing wait time for applications from Lebanon is 46 months. The recent crisis in Ukraine and Canada’s response to it, coupled with the current conditions and barriers in international diplomacy, have only added to this backlog. 

Ethics in Question 

Many people have called into question the justness of the Canadian government’s response to the Ukrainian crisis, and the consequential development of the 2022-2024 Immigration Levels Plan. While the emergency plan has made these applications a priority, it only applies to those with Ukrainian citizenship, while non-nationals or undocumented persons in Ukraine are left non-eligible despite being just as vulnerable, if not more so. 

As the backlog of IRCC applications builds, its capacity remains inadequate for the task at hand. Other applications deemed not as urgent have been “put … on hold indefinitely” as the IRCC rearranges its priorities. This issue has raised questions about whether some refugees should be brought to Canada at the expense of others: is different treatment for different refugees fair and justified? 

Azuz Bin Jawad, a university student living in Vancouver, BC, immigrated to Canada in 2017 through the World University Service (WUSC) Student Refugee Program. Initially fleeing Iraq as a refugee in 2005, Azuz moved around the Middle East living in Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. It was in Amman, Jordan where he learned about WUSC and decided to apply, after having his family’s application through the UNHCR denied to resettle in the United States. 

WUSC is a scholarship program for refugees around the globe and allows them to resettle in Canada with permanent residence status. Azuz explains that WUSC is meant for people who did not have applications with the UNHCR or, in his case, had their applications denied. This program is for those specifically without alternative opportunities to leave their host countries. 

Azuz expressed his gratitude for the life he’s made for himself in Canada: “It’s a life-changing thing that I’m here. Apart from being away from family… it’s a big deal.” Azuz’s family is now settled in Egypt, and he hopes that he will be able to sponsor them to come to Canada once he is financially established. Programs like WUSC are some of the only ways for students to escape their turbulent conditions, and applications like Azuz’s get pushed back, especially after being denied by the UNHCR. 

It’s unfair to make a moral judgement about whether the applications of Ukrainian refugees should or should not be prioritized by Canada as they have been. However, it may be fair to unpack and take a closer look at the IRCC’s decision to accept Ukrainians over other refugees, or question if priority should be given based on nationality… or the assumption of what race is tied to a certain nationality. Why has the reaction to Ukraine been proportionally quicker and more responsive than the reaction to, for example, a turbulent Middle East? Because it certainly has. 

The mere fact that there is no limit to the emergency travel plan for Ukrainians demonstrates a blatant racial bias. While the travel and resettlement plan is being streamlined for Ukrainian nationals, non-nationals have remained unaccounted for by the Canadian government, many of which are themselves immigrants and refugees who resettled in Ukraine. Meanwhile, people like Azuz are turned away from refugee resettlement programs and limited in the programs, in which he even considers himself “one of the lucky ones.”

Let us not forget those whose applications have been pushed back and are awaiting resettlement and asylum. Although news about the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has faded from the headlines, it does not mean that the issue is long gone. The same vulnerable groups continue to be targeted in the country and the violent and oppressive policies of the Taliban remain in place. From Syria, there remain 60,000 privately sponsored refugees awaiting resettlement, of whom many are still stuck in poorly conditioned, oftentimes dangerous, camps. 

Is Canada’s response just a reaction to a more dire situation? Or, as put by Vancouver Sun writer Daphne Bramham, is it really disproportionate treatment towards a people that “most closely resemble some out-of-date version of what Canadians look like, how they act or who they pray to?” The IRCC claims that the speed of processing Ukrainian refugee applications will not lessen that of Afghans or others in the most vulnerable situations, but only time will really tell. 

Edited by Beth Samson

Lara Yacoub

Lara is originally half-Syrian and half-Egyptian, but grew up in Mexico City and Calgary, AB. She moved to Vancouver in 2019 to complete a B.A. in International Relations at the University of British Columbia....