Russia’s vicious and unprovoked attack on Ukraine is the first large-scale conflict of the social media and crowdfunding age. News comes at us like a fire hose, without filters, without quality control. But the moral clarity of this conflict – a peaceful democracy assaulted by a nationalist authoritarian – coincided with the newfound ability of citizens to coordinate and direct humanitarian support and immigration, using the same tools that too often spread misinformation. For all the horrors of this war, a new and more responsive immigration system may be an unintended benefit.

I was lucky to be born in 1970s Canada. I spent my youth studying World War II and thinking: how I would have behaved had I lived in that era? Would I have stepped up, or stepped back? On February 24, 2022, as Twitter livestreamed the first bombs falling on Ukraine, I wondered how the world would respond. Immediately, masses of people were on the move. One million fled in the war’s first week and 12 million (of 44 million) were displaced to the west of Ukraine or abroad by early May.

For me, those questions from World War II weighed heavily, woven with my knowledge of and care for a country where I had served on four election missions spanning two anti-Moscow revolutions. Working for the Canadian government and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had given me a network of friends and contacts across Ukraine.

In my first professional job, 20 years ago, I worked with refugees in Egypt. Unlike the World War II stories dominated by individual bravery, the humanitarian world I entered was bureaucratic, rigid and slow. Don’t get me wrong – people were saved, but often after a limbo of years that stunted life prospects. Humanitarian migration was a complicated, not very popular and often scandal-plagued file.

Today’s Ukrainian refugees have benefits the Somalis and Sudanese I worked with in Egypt lacked. A world shocked by Russian aggression threw open its doors, and Ukrainians with access to cars, buses and reliable railways raced for freedom. A constant flow of information kept Westerners glued to our phones and computers through the dark nights of March. Our social media accounts lit up with pleas for help.

The cynic in me thought this would be like many prior crises: as soon as the curtain came down on the first benefit concert, people would move on. That hasn’t happened. No longer do people have to rely on supranational organizations and governments for coordination – anyone can lean in. And they have.

Governments, large organizations and the UN are still present and important but, for the first time, citizen action has taken its place alongside the institutions. People stepped up, first in protest, then in gathering medical aid and other supplies, and then, once new and flexible immigration programs were announced, by helping individual Ukrainians.

I am no different. In the days after the war began, I felt helpless and worried about my Ukrainian friends. I fended off these feelings by helping to organize protests and vigils at the New Brunswick Legislature. Announcement of the Canadian Ukrainian Emergency Authorization to Travel (CUEAT) program opened up the possibility of more concrete ways to help my friends, and I set to work.

For only the second time, Canada has a country-specific program designed to bypass the complexity of the refugee and humanitarian immigration streams. The first, in 2021 for Hong Kong, created temporary and permanent pathways for citizens with family, study or work connections to Canada. In 2019, 930 work permits were issued to Hong Kong citizens. In 2021 that number grew to 10,000. Clearly, the program worked.

The CUEAT offers any Ukrainian temporary residence in Canada, subject to basic criminal and security checks. More than 240,000 Ukrainians have applied. This is not a refugee or humanitarian program: once you get your visa you are on your own, though the federal government has offered settlement services. In contrast, a traditionally resettled refugee gets a transport loan, health care, financial supports for a year and other help.

CUEAT doesn’t limit the number of Ukrainians who can move to Canada, it’s fast (weeks or months as opposed to years) and it’s not prescribed (you don’t have to prove you are a refugee and there are no prioritization criteria). Also, it is not federally directed in terms of where new arrivals go. It’s like a free-market humanitarian program.

The federal government has opened the door, and the provinces, cities, the Ukrainian diaspora, service clubs, churches and individual citizens have given new arrivals the support they need. Provinces are providing immediate access to health care (New Brunswick), chartered flights (Newfoundland) and emergency financial support (Ontario).

With my background in immigration and diplomacy, I guided people in Facebook groups, raised money to fund flights for Ukrainians I knew or had met in Poland, and connected people in my network. That has led to a dual role, as I am now working part-time for the New Brunswick government, supporting our Ukrainian immigration efforts on the ground in Romania and Poland.

The past few months have been remarkable. They offer a new and better way of approaching mass displacements. I have been talking to my network of migration officials in Canada, Poland and beyond, and while much of what I am about to say is focused on the Canadian – and to some extent Polish – experience, it is broadly applicable.

In countries such as Poland, Romania, Germany and Italy, regular citizens funded by their friends and GoFundMe have been the backbone of the disaster response. A Polish migration official told me, “There are so many people from so many countries here on ‘vacation,’ former soldiers, migration experts, logistics people and just normal people who are giving a helping hand. It is beautiful.”

In Europe and Canada, humanitarian workers are fighting the perennial enemy of crisis management: time lags. Governments and nonprofits do great work, but they do move slowly. Three million people left Ukraine in just over a week, arriving in Poland and Romania without food, housing, transportation or material goods. Fixing this became the responsibility of citizens as the continent became a vast, free Airbnb.
People with military and humanitarian experience have loose networks to extract Ukrainians from conflict zones. They quickly paired with people collecting aid to deliver. This happened within days. Individuals can make choices and those choices can be implemented right away, while organizations have structures and hierarchies, and even fast decisions take days or weeks. Individuals have been self-funded or funded by friends through e-transfers or crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. People are likely to support people they know and trust; high social trust means a higher chance of success. I funded a plane ticket to Canada for a 24-year-old woman in 21 minutes, and she landed in New Brunswick three days later.

Crowdsourced humanitarianism allows for personalization. One family in Canada, maybe with the help of some neighbours and friends, takes responsibility for a family from Ukraine. Every person needs food and shelter, and bureaucracies focus on those core needs. But every family is different: one will have a child with asthma, one a mother with a fear of heights – all the variety of human behaviour. Just as most of us want to live in a home with people we know and care about, not in a dormitory, most of us will do better if we can live a more normal life, even if that normality is being sought in the midst of war.

I am in contact with a woman who goes to Poland from Canada with small amounts of money she raises; her mission is to identify unmet needs and fill them on the spot. Suitcases are one such need. People are given things on arrival in Poland but don’t have anything to store them in when they are in transit. Another is purses – most Ukrainian arrivals are women, because most men are barred from leaving so they can help the war effort. Purses seem like a luxury when you flee, but they are needed for job interviews and for carrying valuables in public.

Crowdfunded humanitarianism offers an incredible boost to the international community’s capacity. All those hosts, drivers and donors of goods and funds going directly to displaced Ukrainians means we are not discussing a malnutrition crisis among the displaced, they have not been confined to refugee camps (with all the risks to safety and mental health), and countries are not shutting their borders.

Not that this new model doesn’t have drawbacks. An early one was the obvious vulnerability that a laissez-faire system creates, especially for youth and women travelling alone. Displaced people are forced to put their lives in the hands of strangers. There is no other way out. Organized crime and predators take advantage of situations like this. Human trafficking, sexual exploitation and economic exploitation are always a reality.

Early on, Ukrainian and border country officials mitigated those risks by imposing extra checks on drivers. As new arrivals land in Canada, informal support groups have put their own checks in place, such as mandating police checks for hosts and dealing directly – rather than through volunteer matching – with cases that include minors or single women. Exploitation is still a risk in the absence of follow-up mechanisms, accountability and central tracking. That said, those same crimes remain common in traditional refugee camps and systems – work must be done to research, compare the risks and adjust accordingly.

People who work regularly with refugees have undergone training on how to deal with the psychological impact that comes from hearing and witnessing the suffering of war. But most Westerners lack such training, and when they deal with people from war zones, that can cause damage to new arrivals and to themselves. Individuals who surround themselves with traumatized people risk rapid burnout and posttraumatic stress disorder. Burnout can lead to so-called humanitarian fatigue, a phenomenon where empathetic helpers become cold and callous from the psychological need to protect themselves.

Most of those doing their best to help are not migration specialists and do not know the jargon to use or the government programs to access as they try to help people navigate complex issues around the migration and settlement process. They frequently give incorrect advice that can be harmful, and they can be inefficient in trying to recreate functioning parts of existing systems. Creating your own job bank when there are settlement agencies, provincial matching portals and the federal job bank doesn’t expand employment opportunities for those you are trying to help – it limits them.

Similarly, those not used to dealing with the opportunists who always scavenge the goodwill of others risk being taken advantage of. I know of one group of professionals in which a doctor was entrusted to keep the thousands of dollars that had been raised, only to refuse to release it when it was needed. Again, that concern has to be put in context, as large government programs aren’t strangers to abuse or corruption either.

There is a need for immigration and refugee experts and researchers to get to work to collect data about this new model of humanitarianism. The CUEAT model offers provinces and towns desperate for new citizens a new reality that amplifies Canada’s tradition of private sponsorship for refugees and builds a nimble mechanism that serves our communities and equips our citizens to be effective helpers. A similarly nimble approach to training those interested will go a long way to better support those helpers and, not coincidentally, show in concrete ways how the technology, trust, flexibility and citizen empowerment that are at the heart of liberal democracy can defeat totalitarian barbarism.