Canada’s two-tier approach to refugees says the quiet part aloud

Published in iPolitics on March 14, 2022

By Steven Zhou

More than two million refugees have escaped Ukraine after Russian forces started a full-scale invasion of their country last month. Cities have fallen under bombardment, and the civilian death toll is rising. So it was a relief when Ottawa announced that Ukrainian refugees can come to Canada for two years to escape the violence. The problem is that this generosity doesn’t extend to some of the most marginalized people leaving Ukraine today: those who don’t have Ukrainian citizenship.It’s a puzzling decision by Liberal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser’s office at a time like this. The invasion of Ukraine is an abomination that’s forced many in the country to unexpectedly drop their lives in search of safety. Many thought wars in Europe were inconceivable and a thing of the past. Yet, for the hundreds of Afghan refugees who fled to Ukraine last year, escaping war has become almost routine.

These asylum seekers have endured decades of instability in Afghanistan, and had to leave when the Taliban marched back into Kabul last August. Despite escaping two wars in the span of months, they fall outside the scope for admitting refugees that Ottawa’s offering Ukrainian citizens.

What is the point of denying these asylum seekers the two years being extended to Ukrainian citizens? What does this two-tier approach signal to other refugees?

It affirms out loud what many have quietly acknowledged: not all refugees escaping war are equal. Some are afforded privileges, others are cast aside.

The European Union just activated a directive to offer immediate protection to those with refugee or permanent residency status in Ukraine. These are mostly racialized groups or individuals, including Afghans, for whom Europe hasn’t always been a friendly and welcoming place. They’re having the most trouble leaving a war-torn Ukraine right now because it’s hard to find somewhere to land.

Dominant media portrayals have mostly left out these people as they’re tossed aside by history. They don’t look like the hundreds of thousands of white Ukrainians on the receiving side of Putin’s bombs, so many don’t immediately associate their predicament with the current invasion. This is discrimination that makes the lives of extremely vulnerable and marginalized people even harder.

There’s also been a lot of criticism of commentators and broadcasters who expressed shock at war in Europe because it’s a “civilized” continent. Or of how neighbouring countries are more likely to receive Ukrainians because Ukrainians come from a more “civilized” place.

In other words: since most Ukrainians don’t resemble the dodgy brown and black figures floating into Europe on flotillas and rafts, it should be easier for many to empathize with their plight. The suffering of Ukrainian citizens is thus a freak accident of history, they think, unlike the suffering of brown and black peoples from darker continents where tribes and clans routinely slaughter each other.

Never mind that a global cataclysm sparked in Europe ended barely a lifetime ago. Or that it was “civilized” bombs (and invasions) gifted by the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe that forced many of today’s homeless barbarians to seek asylum in the West.

Many in the “Civilized World,” like us in Canada, like to pontificate about the tolerant, stabilizing forces of Western liberal values and democracy. This civility is supposedly why we are so generous with our acceptance of rootless refugees who so badly want a piece of our ways.

But if this generosity is such a prominent feature of our civility, then why can we not drop the administrative hurdles and extend Afghans in Ukraine the same relief – spending two years in Canada to escape war? What’s so civilized about penalizing people escaping their second or third war, as opposed to their first?

The only viable answer is that those for whom war has become a norm in the 21st century generally do not possess the kind of faces we’re familiar with. It’s just easier to accept people that look like “ordinary Canadians.”

The UNHCR recently issued a plea for countries to enact inclusive refugee intake policies after the Russian invasion. Given the civilized world’s outrage against invading Ukraine, one would think that such pleas are wholly unnecessary. Reality is much darker than the high rhetoric showcased by political leaders.

The Trudeau government has also showcased its intake of refugees over the years, such as Syrian asylum seekers. Now is the time to live up to that rhetoric, not produce more empty words.