The National Council of Canadian Muslims is calling on the federal government to remove a cap on the number of Palestinians who can seek refuge with their Canadian extended family members from the violence in the Gaza Strip.
The special extended family program for people in Gaza is set to launch next week, after Palestinian Canadians pleaded for months to get help from the government to rescue their loved ones as the Israel-Hamas war continues.
The program would offer visas to a maximum of 1,000 Palestinians, which would allow them to take refuge in Canada for three years if their families are willing to financially support them during that time.
When Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced the plan last month, he said it wasn’t clear how many people would benefit, but that it would likely be “in the hundreds.”
A week later, the department released the written policy for the program.
It shows that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will close the program to new requests after it receives and begins processing the first 1,000 applications, or after a year has elapsed.
The council of Canadian Muslims, a national advocacy group, says it has already been in contact with more than a thousand people who have reached out about getting their families out of Gaza.
“There should not be a cap,” said Uthman Quick, the organization’s director of communications.
The Immigration Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but last month, Miller said it remains very difficult to secure safe passage out of the Palestinian territory.
Ottawa has no control over who can cross the tightly controlled Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on any given day, and even getting Canadian citizens out of the war zone has proven to be slow and difficult.
Toronto immigration lawyer Yameena Ansari said she believes the cap represents a huge underestimate of the number of people who need help.
Ansari advocated for the policy as part of an ad hoc group of immigration lawyers called the Gaza Family Reunification Project.
“Just between the lawyers in this group, we know more than 1,000 applicants,” said Ansari, who called the limit “heinous.”
Gaza has been under near constant bombardment since Hamas raided southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people in Israel and taking about 240 hostage.
Israel almost immediately launched a retaliatory attack in the Hamas-controlled territory that has seen more than 21,900 Palestinians killed, according to local authorities.
Two-thirds of the Palestinian casualties are women and children, Gaza’s Health Ministry says. Canadians with family in the region have described feeling terrified for loved ones who are running out of places to take shelter.
Ansari said she expects the number of applications will fill up quickly, creating what she called a “battle royale” for a scarce number of visas.
“What’s at stake is, and I want to put this really bluntly: is your family going to live or are they going to die?” Ansari said.
She said she took calls all through the holidays from frantic families hoping to prepare for the Jan. 9 launch of the program, and hoping their families will live long enough to get a visa.
Some of those conversations have been difficult, Ansari said. She has had to explain that not all family members will be able to leave. Families will have to decide whether to leave some loved ones behind.
That is, if they can even get through the border.
“This piece of paper might be meaningless. You might not be able to leave this conflict,” Ansari said.
That’s why the NCCM said they have called for a ceasefire to put an end to the violence.
Most people in Gaza don’t want to leave, Quick said, and they want to know that if they do flee to Canada for refuge that they have the right to return home when the conflict is over.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 2, 2024.
— With files from The Associated Press.