People in Gaza with Canadian relatives offered visas, but no guarantee of escape

People in Gaza with Canadian relatives offered visas, but no guarantee of escape
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. The National Council of Canadian Muslims says Miller is expected to make an announcement later today about special measures for Canadians with family members trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadians desperate to bring extended family members in the Gaza Strip to safety will soon be able to apply for temporary visas for their loved ones, but the government can’t guarantee they’ll be able to escape.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced the new temporary immigration program Thursday for people in the Gaza Strip who have Canadian relatives, but he underscored the challenges of getting out of the besieged Palestinian territory.

“We will do our utmost to assist but cannot guarantee safe passage,” Miller said at a press conference.

The Rafah border crossing is tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt as part of negotiations mediated by Qatar, and Canada has no say about who crosses the border on a given day. Instead, Canada has provided a list of names for the consideration of foreign authorities.

Miller said he’s had no guarantees from Israel, Hamas or Egypt that extended family members on Canada’s list will be able to leave.

Some 170 Canadians remained trapped as of Dec. 15 and were asking for help to leave, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Grantly Franklin said in a statement earlier this month.

Miller called the situation in Gaza “unlivable,” and he expects to have a temporary visa program up and running by Jan. 9.

Palestinian Canadian Israa Alsaafin said there’s still a long wait until Jan. 9, and she wants to bring her family to safety as soon as possible.

“Every second that passes, it’s a long time for us,” she said at a press conference hosted by the National Council for Canadian Muslims.

Alsaafin lost her brother on Oct. 13 as he fled his home with his wife and baby. For weeks now, she has been asking the Canadian government to help bring her sister-in-law, nephew and father to safety.

Her nephew, she said, is her responsibility now. “Nobody deserves to live these emotions and feelings.”

Until now, the government has focused on getting some 660 Canadians, permanent residents, and their spouses and children out of the Gaza Strip.

The government will soon start accepting applications for people with extended family connections to Canada, including parents, grandparents, siblings and grandchildren. The spouses and children of those extended family members will also be eligible.

Canada has made exceptions to its strict definition of family since the conflict began and has successfully helped some of those people get out through the Rafah border, the minister said.

People will need their documents in order to leave Gaza, and will undergo additional screening and fingerprinting in Cairo, the minister said.

The Immigration Department said families should start gathering those documents now, including proof of their family relationships.

Extended family members of Canadians will be offered three-year visas if they meet eligibility and admissibility criteria, Miller said.

He’s not sure how many people will be eligible to come to Canada under the program, but he expects the number will be in the hundreds.

The special immigration measures come after months of pleas from Canadians with extended family members in the war zone, and an appeal from the NDP.

“New Democrats welcome this long overdue announcement,” New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan said in a statement Thursday.

“Families have been waiting for this day for too long.”

Palestinian Canadian Fayza Alashi said she knows many families whose loved ones have been killed in Gaza, but now they’re focused on saving the ones who remain.

Even if it came late, it’s still a “good decision,” she said at the NCCM press conference.

Miller also announced that the spouses and children of Canadian citizens and permanent residents who are already in Canada after fleeing Gaza, the West Bank or Israel since Oct. 7 can apply for a free study or open work permit.

“Israelis and Palestinians already in Canada who feel unsafe returning home at this time will also be eligible for the fee-exempt study or open work permits,” Miller said.

Gaza became a battlefield after Hamas launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 Israeli civilians and military members.

The retaliatory siege, bombardments and ground attacks have left about 20,000 civilians and combatants in Gaza dead, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

When asked why it has taken the government so long to offer protection to Canadians’ extended families, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the situation “extremely difficult.”

Trudeau said ultimately the solution is to ensure the viability of a Palestinian state, living in peace alongside Israel.

“We have an important role to play as well, here in Canada, as a place with a richness of diversity, in bringing people together, to be a part of building that future,” Trudeau said in Toronto on Thursday.

He acknowledged the grief and hurt Canadians are feeling over the conflict in the Middle East.

He called for humanitarian pauses to the violence in Gaza while countries work toward a sustainable ceasefire. But he said a ceasefire would have to be conditional on Hamas laying down arms, releasing Israeli hostages and having no role in the future governance of Gaza.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press

Laura Osman, The Canadian PressLaura Osman, The Canadian Press

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