Calls intensify for Canada to bring extended family of Canadians safely out of Gaza

Calls intensify for Canada to bring extended family of Canadians safely out of Gaza
The New Democrats are calling for Ottawa to create special immigration measures to help get Canadians' extended family members out of the Gaza Strip, as it has during other crises in recent years. NDP MP Jenny Kwan speaks to reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday, May 29, 2023.

Canadians whose relatives are struggling to survive in the Gaza Strip are losing faith the federal government will step in to save the lives of their loved ones, and are joining an NDP call for Canada to help get their extended family members out of the embattled territory.

Hanadi Alashi said she doesn’t know minute to minute whether her family in Gaza is still alive. Despite her desperation to contact them and hear the sound of their voices, she also dreads the feeling that follows.

“When I hear my sister say, ‘Please get us out from here,’ I sometimes avoid calling them, because I’m helpless,” she said in an interview before letting out a quiet sob.

“They know that some families were able to get out from Gaza with the help of their relatives here in Canada, so they were looking for me to get them out.”

The Ottawa woman’s 79-year-old mother, her two brothers, her sister and their families fled from the northern part of the territory to the south shortly after Israel’s bombardment of the territory began in response to a brutal attack by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Since then, they have been trapped, with only limited access to food, clean water, shelter and electricity. They got a short reprieve from the near-constant bombardment of Israel’s retaliation campaign during a weeklong humanitarian pause, but airstrikes resumed Friday.

Canada has negotiated with Israel and Egypt to get approximately 600 people through the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, as of the last update from Global Affairs.

The only people who qualify are Canadians, Canadian permanent residents and people who meet the government’s strict definition of an eligible family member, though there have been exceptions.

That strict definition applies only to spouses, children, and common-law partners of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. It does not include parents, siblings or adult children over the age of 22.

In a statement, Global Affairs did not respond to questions about exceptions to the rules. The department restated the policy and said it does not comment on specific consular cases for privacy reasons.

A government source with knowledge of the process, who spoke on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said there have been very limited exceptions, made on a case-by-case basis. The source did not say exactly how many exceptions have been made.

The horrors in Gaza are so widespread that Alashi feels Canada cannot pick and choose who should escape.

“All the people, they have the same situation. Nobody in Gaza is safe,” she said. She hopes to bring her family to Canada only temporarily, until it is safe to return to their homes.

Alashi, who worked in refugee resettlement shortly after immigrating to Canada in 2016, has found it nearly impossible to carry on with her daily life since the conflict between Israel and Hamas reignited, leaving her family and millions of other civilians in the centre of a deadly war.

She barely sleeps, she said, and instead watches the news and social media, hoping for a glimpse of her family’s faces.

In October, Immigration Minister Marc Miller told a House of Commons committee that he had asked the department to be “as flexible as it can,” when it came to reuniting Canadians with family members in Gaza.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan asked the minister Monday to formalize the process of getting extended family members out of the embattled territory.

“I assume that the government is doing something on a one-off basis and perhaps that’s why some people managed to get to safety. But that’s not good enough, it is not the right approach,” Kwan said at a press conference Monday.

In an open letter signed by the entire NDP caucus, Kwan urged the government to facilitate the evacuation and reunification of extended family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents from Gaza.

“The situation in Gaza is getting so desperate that literally, as we speak, people’s lives are being lost,” she told reporters at a press conference outside the House of Commons.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Monday during a news conference in a city in the southern Gaza Strip, that 15,899 people had been killed in Gaza since the Oct. 7 start of the war between Israel and Hamas. The figure closely reflects estimates provided by Israel’s military.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but said 70 per cent of the dead were women and children.

The Oct. 7 attack in Israel killed an estimated 1,200 people. More than 240 people were taken hostage, 105 of whom were released during the recent temporary pause in fighting.

The Israeli military has now expanded its ground operation against Hamas to “every part” of the Gaza Strip. After focusing its ground operation on the northern part of Gaza in recent weeks, it began carrying out airstrikes in southern Gaza as well. The vast majority of Gaza’s population has fled to the south in search of safety.

Kwan said in extraordinary circumstances such as these, Canada has often extended special visas and family unification streams to people fleeing violence and looking for temporary refuge.

In the case of Ukraine, Canada took the unprecedented step of offering an unlimited number of temporary visas to Ukrainians and their family members after Russia began its assault on the country.

And when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, Canada offered refuge to the extended family members of Afghans who aided the Canadian military during the war.

“The Canadian government undertook important immigration measures in the Syrian crisis. The Canadian government took extraordinary immigration measures in the case of Ukraine. The Canadian government even, to some extent, took special immigration measure for Afghanistan. Not enough, but they did,” Kwan said Monday.

“They have the power within them. They just need to have the political will to take the action.”

Australia has issued more than 800 temporary visas for Palestinians with ties to its country. However, only a small number of those with approved visas have made it out of the war zone.

Canada’s immigration minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment and when confronted by the idea of special immigration measures in question period Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister MĂ©lanie Joly didn’t respond directly.

“I agree that Gaza is one of the worst places to live in the world right now, and we’re very preoccupied by the fact that many children, too many children, too many women, have lost their lives,” Joly told the House of Commons.

“I met with many humanitarian groups earlier today to share my concern and to hear their thoughts on how we can make sure that Palestinian civilians are protected.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Immigration Department said the government is closely monitoring the situation as it evolves and will adapt its response accordingly.

The Rafah crossing, which is the only available route out of the besieged Gaza Strip, is tightly controlled by both Israel and Egypt.

Canada has provided a list of potential evacuees as part of a process that is mediated by Qatar, but has very little influence over who can cross to safety on a given day.

When asked whether Canada has the influence in the region to expand its list of evacuees, given how long it has taken to get its own citizens out of danger, Kwan replied simply that Australia has managed it.

“If Australia can do it, so can we,” she said.

Kwan spoke with 18 Palestinian Canadians standing at her back, and a few of them shared their own stories of helplessness.

Rani Hemaid described the last time he spoke to his six-year-old niece in Gaza, who is the same age as his own daughter. He told her when the war is over, he will buy her a crown.

“She told me, ‘Uncle, please do not bring it here to Gaza. It will be destroyed. Same as my toys and my clothes,”” he said. “I cried after the call. I felt so helpless.”

His daughter couldn’t understand why her cousin can’t come to Canada, and even offered to share her room, he said.

Israa Alsaafin lost her brother on Oct. 13 as he fled his home with his wife and baby. Now, she spends every day fearing for her sister.

“Today, my sister begged me to get her out of there, because I’m their only hope,” Alsaafin said. She addressed her comments to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and implored him to let her bring her parents and siblings to safety.

“I will never forgive you, or forgive anyone in this world that had a chance to save my family and failed to do so.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Laura Osman, The Canadian PressLaura Osman, The Canadian Press

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