Since fleeing his home in Lviv, Ukraine three weeks ago, Canadian expat Mike O’Leary has been locked up in a relative’s home in a Polish village with his son, wife and parents.
The former Edmontonian tried 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 the Canadian government promise that they’d expedite visas for those fleeing war.
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“We feel forgotten,” he says, “when I need the Canadian government to come home, bring my family home, get them to safety, and no one can even answer an email.”
The applications from O’Leary’s in-laws, Nadiia and Roman Piatnochko, are among some 4,582 pending applications from Ukrainians currently listed in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) database.
Between February 24 – when the war in Ukraine broke out – and March 16, IRCC told Global News it received 6,720 applications from Ukrainian refugees wishing to enter Canada. According to the data they provided, less than a third were treated during this period. About 1 in 20 applicants are granted a visa.
O’Leary is currently staying with relatives in the small Polish town of Lezajsk, about 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Previously, he, his wife and their 12-year-old son lived in Lviv for six years.
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When war broke out on February 24, the family picked up the Piatnochkos, aged 63 and 57, from their home in Sokal – a small town north of Lviv – before heading straight to Poland. It took them 41 hours to cross the border.
Over the next few weeks, O’Leary tried to come up with a long-term plan for her family — which, for now, means temporarily moving to Edmonton, where her parents await them. O’Leary’s wife and son, who are Ukrainians, have Canadian visas, while his in-laws do not.
The couple applied for visitor visas on March 9, after the Canadian government pledged to speed up applications from Ukrainians.
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The Canada-Ukraine Emergency Travel Authorization (CUAET) was announced on March 3 and introduced two weeks later, providing Ukrainians and their families with free 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 take up to 14 days to process.
According to the Global Affairs website, Poland’s normal processing time for applications is currently nine days. However, the estimate does not include the time required to provide biometric information (fingerprints and photos) to VFS Global, an outsourced technology services company.
However, O’Leary says the process was mishandled and confusing, and two weeks later he has received no indication of when the visas will be approved and cannot book a slot to submit the couple’s passports. to complete the process.
O’Leary says he was instructed by the embassy to contact VFS Global to obtain the couple’s biometrics, however, when he tried he said the online reservation system and online chat functions direct weren’t working and he couldn’t reach the phone. . On Monday, he received an email from the Canadian Embassy offering biometric appointments for the weekend in Warsaw, a four-hour train ride north and the only location offered.
The Piatnochkos completed their biometrics on Saturday but struggled to get information on how to deposit their passports, which would be supplemented by visas. O’Leary says he was advised on Sunday to make an appointment on the VFS Global website to submit passports, but the webpage did not allow them to make an appointment. Emails to the embassy went unanswered.
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In a statement, a spokesperson for VFS Global acknowledged that some of their visa application centers were experiencing “higher than usual volumes” due to the war in Ukraine. They said the company had taken “proactive steps” with IRCC to deal with the outbreak, but did not specify what those steps were. They said the biometric data was captured “in accordance with instructions given by the Canadian government”.
The spokesperson said applicants could avoid increased wait times by applying online – an option that O’Leary says doesn’t work.
He says his in-laws have “been through so much” (his step-dad served in the Red Army) and “just want to move on now”.
“We have been in Poland for quite a long time. They live in this state of anxiety. I’m supposed to be the one with answers, but I’m trying to get 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,” says Fenelon. “This includes relocating staff and moving additional supplies and equipment, such as mobile biometric collection kits.”
The government said it would send 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.
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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. 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 January 1.
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