In 15 days of war in Ukraine, this conflict has already generated more than 2 million refugees. Europe is one of the main destinations for those fleeing this war, but it is known that Canada has a huge Ukrainian community, so it is expected that many will seek refuge in this country.
The United Nations, and in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, has played a central role in alerting the world to the humanitarian dramas generated by the multiple waves of refugees. Faced with yet another situation of particular gravity, given its expected dimension – the desperate flight from war in Ukraine – and given the experience of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Canada, we sought to know how this situation is being monitored and also what differences can be identified in relation to other equally dramatic situations.
Gisèle Nyembwe, Communications Associate of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Canada, agreed to answer our questions, thus helping us to better understand where we stand and what work they are doing. The concern is extreme, not only for what is already happening, but even greater for the fear that the future will become even more dramatic.
Milénio Stadium: The Canadian government has already announced measures to speed up the process of integration of these people. Do you think that what is already being done is enough?
Gisèle Nyembwe: We are grateful for the immigration measures that the federal government announced in response to the conflict, and the pledges made by provincial governments to support the settlement in Canada of people fleeing Ukraine. These measures provide safety and stability during a difficult time and are a sign of solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainian-Canadians who worry about family and friends back home. As the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate and numbers of people fleeing continue to rise, we count on Canada’s solidarity, as it has done in the past, to support the refugee response and share that responsibility with host communities in Europe. That responsibility sharing will include resettlement places for the most vulnerable, including those who cannot find lasting solution in the first countries to which they have fled.
MS: How do you see the way public opinion is welcoming the possibility of having these refugees among us?
GN: We have not conducted any specific research on this but judging from the outpouring of support for the people of Ukraine, we can see that most Canadians want Canada to open its doors to people fleeing this brutal war.
Governments at various levels have pledged their support for the settlement of refugees in their communities. We have heard stories about the Ukrainian flag being raised at city halls. We have heard many stories about individual Canadians, faith groups and others organizing collection of items and making monetary donations to contribute to relief efforts. In just seven days of the hostilities, UNHCR Canada had raised over CAD 3.5 million in donations from individual Canadians. And this is the story of many other aid organisations. All this reflects a readiness of Canadians to support people inside and outside Ukraine and welcome the most vulnerable among them who have suffered huge losses and trauma.
MS: Do you think that the treatment, the empathy, and the attention that has been given to this matter, here in Canada, is similar to that which has been dedicated to refugees from other wars?
GN: Canada has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees, having provided tens of thousands of refugees with the opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their families. Not long ago, our eyes were turned to the situation in Afghanistan, and efforts are underway to resettle 40,000 refugees to Canada. Since 2015, Canada has resettled over 70,000 Syrian refugees. As the situation in Ukraine continues to make the headlines and occupy our minds, we ask Canadians not to forget the other 84 million forcibly displaced people in the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, as well as the millions who have fled their homes in places such as Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Venezuela, and beyond.
MS: The world has witnessed evident racist attitudes, namely on the border of Ukraine and Poland, where citizens were being prevented from entering Poland just because they are not white. What can you tell us about this issue? Is this a recurring situation, in other similar scenarios?
GN: UNHCR is aware of reports of individuals facing challenges entering Poland from Ukraine. We have continuously been advocating for access to asylum for all refugees – and have made our positions clear, both publicly and bilaterally with governments. Respecting human rights and refugee rights is not a choice – it is a legal and moral obligation and should never be contingent on nationality or mode of arrival.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has raised our concerns with relevant authorities as any acts of discrimination or racism must be condemned and all people must be protected. All authorities fully agreed and have given assurances, at the highest levels of government as well as from those operating on the ground, that states are not and will not discriminate or turn away people fleeing Ukraine.
MS: As of right now, what are your main concerns as a member of an institution whose mission is to welcome and protect refugees?
GN: We are extremely concerned that the situation could get worse and the war could become even more destructive, forcing millions more to flee their homes in search of safety and protection in neighbouring countries or other parts of Ukraine. International solidarity has been heartwarming. But nothing – nothing – can replace the need for the guns to be silenced; for dialogue and diplomacy to succeed. Peace is the only way to halt this tragedy.