Since fleeing his home in Lviv, Ukraine, three weeks ago, expat Canadian Mike O’Leary has been holed up at a relative’s house in a Polish village with his son, wife, and her parents.
The former Edmontonian has been trying to bring his entire family to his hometown in Alberta but says applying for visitor visas on behalf of his Ukrainian in-laws has been hampered by overloaded systems and misleading information, despite a pledge from the Canadian government that they’d fast-track visas for those fleeing the war.
“We feel forgotten about,” he says, “when I need the Canadian government to get home, to get my family home, to get them to safety, and no one can even reply to an email.”
The applications from O’Leary’s in-laws, Nadiia and Roman Piatnochko, are among some 4,582 outstanding applications from Ukrainians currently sitting in the database of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Between Feb. 24 — when the war in Ukraine broke out — and March 16, IRCC told Global News they have received 6,720 applications from Ukrainian refugees wishing to enter Canada. According to the data they supplied, less than a third have been processed during that time. Around 1-in-20 applicants have been issued visas.
O’Leary is currently staying with relatives in the small Polish town of Lezajsk, about 100 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. Previously, he and his wife and their 12-year-old son had lived in Lviv for six years.
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When war broke out on Feb. 24, the family collected the Piatnochkos, aged 63 and 57, from their home in Sokal — a small town north of Lviv — before heading straight for Poland. It took them 41 hours to cross the border.
In the weeks since, O’Leary has been trying to figure out a long-term plan for his family – which for now, means temporarily relocating to Edmonton, where his parents await them. O’Leary’s wife and son, who are Ukrainian, have Canadian visas, while his in-laws do not.
The couple applied for visitor visas on March 9, after the Canadian government pledged to fast-track applications from Ukrainians.
The Canada-Ukraine Authorisation for Emergency Travel (CUAET) was announced on March 3 and introduced two weeks later, offering Ukrainians and their families free-of-charge extended visas to enter Canada. The initiative gives Ukrainian refugees a three-year visa with the option to apply for an open work permit. A standard case would require up to 14 days to process.
According to the Global Affairs website, the normal processing time for applications from Poland currently stands at nine days. However, the estimate does not include the time it takes to give biometric information (fingerprints and photos), to VFS Global, an outsourced technology services company.
However, O’Leary says the process has been mismanaged and confusing, and two weeks on, he has not been given any indication as to when the visas will be approved and cannot book a slot to submit the couple’s passports to finalize the process.
O’Leary says he was instructed by the embassy to contact VFS Global to get the couple’s biometrics done, however, when he tried, he says the online booking system and live chat functions were not working and he was unable to get through on the phone. On Monday, he received an email from the Canadian Embassy offering biometrics appointments for the end of the week in Warsaw, a four-hour train ride north and the only location on offer.
The Piatnochkos completed their biometrics on Saturday but have struggled to get information on how to drop off their passports, to which the visas would be added. O’Leary says he was notified on Sunday to make an appointment on VFS Global’s website to submit passports but the webpage would not allow them to make an appointment. Emails to the embassy have gone unanswered.
In a statement, a VFS Global spokesperson acknowledged some of their visa-application centres were experiencing “higher volumes than usual” due to the Ukraine war. They said the company had taken “proactive measures” with IRCC to address the surge but did not specify what those measures were. They said biometrics were captured “according to instructions given by the Canadian government.”
The spokesperson said applicants could avoid increased call wait times by applying online – an option O’Leary says is not working.
He says his in-laws have “gone through so much,” (his father-in-law served in the Red Army) and “just want to get moving now.”
“We’ve been in Poland long enough. They’re living in this state of anxiety. I’m supposed to be the one with answers, but I’m trying to get them answers and I can’t.”
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Beatrice Fenelon, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, says the government is currently “working around the clock” to help Ukrainians get to Canada.
“We have increased our operational capacity in the region, in anticipation of an increased volume of requests,” Fenelon says. “This includes relocating staff and moving additional supplies and equipment, such as mobile biometric collection kits.”
The government announced it was sending the mobile biometric kits to Warsaw in Poland, Bucharest in Romania, and Vienna in Austria late last week, but did not say when they would arrive.
On the day the Russians invaded Ukraine, the IRCC announced support for Ukrainians wanting to immigrate, study or work in Canada, as well as for Ukrainians in Canada who wanted to stay on. The government is also working on a family reunification sponsorship pathway for permanent residence, which will be ready “in the coming weeks.”
In total, the government says 7,400 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada since Jan. 1.
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