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Ukraine crisis highlights refugee care inequities in Canada: ‘No easy fix’

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has reverberated in Canada in highlighting refugee care inequities.

“I find it difficult to find an easy fix,” said Adèle Garnier, associate professor in the department of geography at University Laval in Quebec. She does empirical research on refugees.

“This is a multilevel governance issue,” said Garnier.

Immigration processes and waived waiting periods for health-care coverage for Ukrainians contrast with treatment of other refugees, according to a recent article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), written by Abigail Cukier and Lauren Vogel.

For example, some refugees could face several months of wait time to access provincial health insurance after coming to Canada, but a few provinces have provided immediate access to Ukrainians coming into the country.

“More information about (refugee) crises should be available so that people may be aware that in their own community, in their own city, you may have populations of asylum seekers who are in very, very precarious health-care situations,” said Garnier.

Over 16,000 Afghan refugees now call Canada home, a communications officer with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told Global News.

However, the country made a promise in late August, 2021 to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees.

That commitment has “not waivered,” the IRCC communications officer said.

Between Jan. 1 and June 5, 43,287 Ukrainian citizens and Canadian permanent residents of Ukrainian origin arrived in Canada by land or air through a temporary measure called the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET), according to the IRCC.

“The CUAET is for Ukrainians and family members who want to come to Canada temporarily, while the situation in Ukraine unfolds, and then (to) return home. It is not a refugee program, compared to our Afghanistan refugee resettlement program,” the spokesperson told Global News, noting the CUTAET leverages existing temporary resident visa processes and, networks and infrastructure.

Between March 17 to June 8, 296, 163 applications for temporary resident visas have been received through the CUAET program, according to the IRCC. A total of 131,793 applications were approved during this period.

For travelling to Canada, the government is also able to issue single journey travel documents (SJTDs) to some individuals. These one-time documents are mainly issued to foreign nationals, according to the IRCC spokesperson. Though, in some cases, this time of travel documentation can also be issued to permanent residents who do not have, or are unable to obtain, a passport or other travel document.

“SJTDs are presented when boarding commercial air carriers to Canada and upon arrival at a Canadian port of entry. SJTDs are commonly used for resettled refugee clients who are unable to obtain travel documents from their country of nationality,” said the IRCC spokesperson.

The federal government has attributed the differences in resettling individuals from different parts of the world to logistical issues.

“The most difficult hurdles in getting people out of Afghanistan remain the lack of safe, secure and reliable routes out of the country, the absence of stable conditions and ever-changing circumstances around exit documentation requirements at check-points and international crossings into third countries,” said the IRCC spokesperson, noting single journey travel documents are not granted to Afghans by Canada.

“Other countries decide on the entry and exit requirements for their country and determine when and if these requirements are changed. Having a single journey travel document to come to Canada alone does not satisfy the entry or exit requirements. The Government of Canada continues to have discussions with partners in the region, as well as organizations on the ground, to secure safe passage for as many Afghans as possible.”

In provinces like British Columbia and Ontario, Ukrainians are provided immediate access to provincial health insurance when they arrive in Canada.

In Alberta, health-care providers have been instructed not to bill Ukrainians while the government figures out coverage.

However, refugees from other countries have to rely on the Interim Federal Health Program while they wait months potentially to access provincial health care insurance. Canada’s Interim Federal Health Program was previously weakened under the previous Conservative government but reestablished under the Liberals six months after they came into office in 2016.

“Refugee health providers are seeing the attention and compassion that our world is giving to the Ukraine crisis and we’re very happy, but there’s frustration that so many other crises have gone ignored,” Tim Holland, medical director of the Newcomer Health Clinic in Halifax, said in the CMAJ article.

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