Canada’s immigration response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is both inspiring and unprecedented. Despite its reputation as a welcoming country, Canadian policy often makes it difficult for people needing protection to reach Canada. The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) tackles one of the biggest hurdles—visa requirements. Travel to seek asylum is a human right. But the Canadian government imposes visa requirements on countries that send a high number of refugee claimants. As a result, would-be refugees are often not able to travel to Canada.1
Other recent, large-scale refugee initiatives in Canada have had their limits. When war broke out in Syria, Canada introduced a bold target to quickly resettle 25,000 refugees. Over the course of three years, more than 58,000 Syrians were resettled through a mix of government sponsorship, private sponsorship, and a public-private sponsorship program. Most recently, following the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan, the Canadian government began working to extract some Canadian partners and human rights workers. But many others fleeing the same violence are unable to seek refugee protection.
CUAET goes beyond these programs because it is available to an unlimited number of Ukrainians, rather than only those who are pre-selected. Under CUAET, Ukrainians are exempt from standard visa requirements. CUAET also addresses other logistical barriers that often hinder refugee resettlement. For example, Ukrainians do not need to complete their immigration medical exam overseas, and the Canadian government aims to process applications quickly. Eliminating barriers to travel means that those who want to leave Ukraine will be able to do so. It sounds simple, but it is ground-breaking.
Critics have rightly pointed out that limiting CUAET to Ukrainian citizens is inequitable. It denies people fleeing wars in other countries the same opportunity for protection. But CUAET also offers an opportunity for Canada to expand its commitment to humanitarian immigration.
As Canada has increased the number of new immigrants it welcomes each year, the refugee immigration stream has not kept pace. The percent of immigrants who come under refugee and humanitarian streams has declined from 1980 until the present.
Per Cent of New Permanent Residents through Refugee Streams by Year
Source: Admission of PRs by Province/Territory of Intended Destination and Immigration Category (2015-present, viewed on 18 May 2022)
Canada Admissions of Permanent Residents by Immigration Category 1980-2016
Refugees contribute positively to Canada socially, culturally, and economically. They bring their ideas and creativity. Examples of Canadians who came as refugees and have contributed to their communities and the arts scene include Sharmarke Dubow and Kim Thúy.2 Countless others go unrecognized but make life in Canada richer through everyday actions.
Canada’s commitment to refugee protection is not, and should not, be driven by economic considerations. But it is important to recognize that refugees also bring economic benefits. Recent economic projections by The Conference Board of Canada show that immigration drives economic growth, including when the proportion of immigrants who come through refugee streams increases modestly.3 Businesses that hire refugee talent are more innovative, better able to meet the needs of diverse consumers, and more likely to expand into global markets.4 Studies show that refugees pay more in taxes than they use in services, even before sales tax is considered.5
The Canadian government should expand CUAET to apply to other humanitarian emergencies. The CUAET has been positively received. The experience welcoming refugees through CUAET can be leveraged to secure public buy-in for a broader iteration of the program. In a time when the Canadian government— with support from the public and all major parties— is seeking to increase annual immigration, we should see refugees as an important part of that plan.
1 Brouwer and Kumin, “Interception and Asylum”; FitzGerald, Refuge beyond Reach.
2 Dundas, “Miriam Toews, Kim Thuy, Omar El Akkad among 12 Writers on the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long List”; CBC News, “Victoria Councillor Named ‘noteworthy Historical Figure’ by Canadian Heritage.”
3 Rose and Clark, “Counting on Immigration.”
4 Legrain, “Refugees Work: A Humanitarian Investment That Yields Economic Dividends.”
5 UNHCR Canada, “Refugees in Canada.”