They were relatively civilized middle-class Europeans who looked more like the family living next door than the refugees western nations had become so accustomed to seeing trickle across their borders. At least, that’s how Western news media and politicians depicted the Ukrainian citizens forced to flee their homes following the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
As a second generation Canadian and daughter of two Eritrean refugees, the distinctions made between refugees were textbook dog-whistles messages that were impossible to ignore. When I travelled to Ethiopia and visited my uncle this past May, I witnessed first-hand how refugees who don’t look like people who might live next door – who come from places that are not seen as “civilized” – have become forgotten casualties of broken asylum systems.
Picture this: you grow up living in an eight-bedroom home in a residential neighbourhood two-hours outside the capital city. Your father runs a public transportation business, and your mother is a shopkeeper who sells spices. You and your seven siblings attend the only private school in town. The life you lead is a good life until one day, the political situation of your country changes and suddenly your family loses everything. In the blink of an eye, fifteen years passes by in the refugee camp where you’ve been waiting in limbo for your asylum papers to arrive.
This is my uncle’s story, in a nutshell. Despite hailing from Ethiopia, the life he led prior to the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea border war was not all that different from the life of your average middle-class Canadian citizen. Yet December will mark 18 years since my uncle first filed an asylum claim in 2004. He does not “seem so like us,” as one Telegraph writer described Ukrainian asylum seekers – and there is no telling when his ordeal will end.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government announced measures in March that would fast-track the arrival of an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the war and allow them to apply for a renewable three-year temporary residence. Many wondered why the same quick action couldn’t be taken for the refugees who have languished in the system for years. But during a CBS News broadcast report from Kyiv in late February, senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata voiced what had to that point been largely implicit: Ukraine, he declared, “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Research studies have long indicated that lengthy asylum processes adversely impact the mental health of refugee claimants, leading to an increased risk of life-long psychiatric disorders. After my uncle spent 15 years in in the Shimelba camp in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, we lost all contact with him for two years until 2021, when he was found homeless on the streets of Addis Ababa. When I met him this summer, his mental health had deteriorated to such a point that my family decided to pool resources and place him in a private facility where he could receive treatment for depression while he continued waiting to be granted asylum.
While his case is an extreme one, long asylum wait-times are not uncommon. In a 2017 memo, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada estimated that by 2021 wait times for asylum claims would take up to 11 years – this is much closer to the bleak reality faced by refugees than the projected 24-month period indicated on the board’s website.
Canada moving at a breakneck speed to implement targeted supports for Ukrainian asylum seekers was a reminder that our refugee policies are not race-blind commitments to humanitarianism. Who a nation welcomes across its borders and into its society reveals who belongs, who doesn’t and which lives it believes are worth saving.
Criticism of slow resettlement processes are usually met with the excuse that an increasing number of asylum claims have placed an untenable weight on a system already weakened by a mounting backlog. Yet the international response to the Ukraine crisis has revealed how governments in the west can operate like well-oiled machines when they feel the need.
Applaud our government for the exemplary support provided to Ukrainians in need – now urge them to apply this same urgency and care to all refugees, equally.
Hermona Kuluberhan is an Ottawa-based writer currently completing a master’s in journalism at Carleton University.