Canada promised temporary visas for 1,000 people trapped in Gaza. Zero have made it out

Canadian citizens and permanent residents with family members trapped in Gaza met privately with Immigration Minister Marc Miller this week to press for changes to the special immigration program they say has so far failed them. 

“We’re not asking him for the moon, we are asking him for adjustments that make complete sense,” said Omar Omar, a permanent resident in Vancouver who has 18 family members attempting to flee Gaza, in an interview with CBC News.

“They have to be on the table of telling us what exactly is happening and be fully transparent about who is putting the sticks in the wheels and why Canada is not capable of getting those people out.”

The Temporary Resident Visa program was announced in January in response to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The program promised to provide a maximum of 1,000 visas to extended family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents.  

Nearly three months later, the program has failed to bring even one relative to Canada and family members here say the situation has become desperate. 

“I had a call this morning with my sister in the northern part of the Gaza Strip,” Omar said this week. “Those people are surviving day to day trying to find food every day. I literally have calls from my family members saying that they are hungry.”

WATCH | Immigration minister angered by delays in getting people in Gaza out: 

Immigration minister angered by delays in getting people in Gaza out

Marc Miller says Canada is hoping for a quick approval after presenting local authorities, including Egypt and Israel, with an initial list of people to evacuate from Gaza. ‘Perhaps there is trepidation by people on the ground to let these folks out, but it’s a humanitarian gesture,’ he said.

When the program was announced Miller said the new measures recognized the importance of “keeping families together given the ongoing crisis” in the region. 

A month later he told reporters in a scrum that he is so far “pissed off” with its failure. 

“I don’t want to create a system that’s entertaining false hope, but I also don’t want to drop my arms and not try,” said Miller.

“It’s really frustrating, and obviously it’s a matter of life and death for the families in question.” 

Amend the program, families say

To apply, a family member in Canada must first provide a list of names and birth dates of family members. Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) then issues a code for each name submitted. 

Once the sponsor receives the code they can begin the application process which requires extensive background information and biometric tests. CBC has reported that some family members have died in Gaza waiting to receive their code. 

Omar says he hasn’t received a single code for any of his family members despite applying on Jan. 9, the first day the program opened. 

Two young women with black hair smile into a camera lens.
Ruba Omar, right, and Sherehan Omar, are stuck in Gaza. Their brother Omar Omar, a permanent Canadian resident based in B.C., has applied for them to be admitted to Canada through the Temporary Resident Visa program. (Submitted by Omar Omar)

Family members who met Miller this week said they want changes that include: 

  • Removing the 1,000 person cap.
  • Eliminating the requirement to obtain a code to apply
  • Expanding the eligibility to Palestinians outside of Gaza.
  • Cutting the onerous background questions in the application. 

Family members say the requirement to provide a complete work history back to the age of 16, details of their social media accounts, bodily scars and whether they have treated members of Hamas as a health-care worker are “intrusive and invasive.”

Some Palestinians who have escaped Gaza, or who left the Strip for business or pleasure prior to Oct. 7, and are now trapped in third-countries, are unable to apply through the program. Family members say they want eligibility expanded to include this group. 

Miller also heard that family members in Canada would like IRCC to negotiate directly with private agencies who have been able to get people out of Gaza for a fee. 

CBC News asked Miller’s office for a response to the demands but did not receive a reply in time for publication. 

Expanding, simplifying the program

Toronto immigration lawyer Pantea Jafari said requiring background information and documentation — that are extremely difficult to obtain and verify in the midst of an ongoing conflict — is unfair to people in such a vulnerable position. 

“In the history of immigration policy and programming, we have never seen that level of information requested from any population under any program,” Pantea told CBC News. 

Jafari said Canada can work with international partners and Interpol to vet people for security concerns without placing the burden on people running for their lives. 

WATCH | Omar’s brother cooks on an open stove in Gaza as he awaits visa approval: 

Firas Omar cooks over an open flame while awaiting chance to leave Gaza

Omar Omar’s brother Firas tears up paper to keep the flame going under the pot of food he’s cooking in Northern Gaza. The Omars are waiting for their applications to go through under the Temporary Residents Visa program in order to evacuate Gaza and come to Canada.

Former Conservative foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay oversaw the 2006 evacuation of 15,000 Canadians from Lebanon after violence erupted between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon.

MacKay said he faced similar security concerns with the evacuation of Lebanon and his government managed to navigate them without stranding people in the country. 

“It sounds like a bureaucratic hurdle that is unreasonable in these circumstances,” he told CBC News.

“If their lives are at risk, which they arguably are, it seems to me ludicrous, quite frankly, to be putting that kind of a burden on somebody who’s fleeing for their life.”

Jon Allen, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2006 to 2010, told CBC News that family members from Gaza now trapped in third countries are “essentially refugees” and the program could easily be expanded to include them. 

“They’ve already got 1,000, so they’d have to add another 500 to the list to make it 1,500,” Allen said. “Those numbers even in the current anti-immigration, anti-student environment, aren’t the kind of numbers that should cause a problem. 

“Canadians would understand these are people in desperate need,” he added. 

An elderly couple smile for a photo
Sanaa and Mansour Omar, Omar Omar’s parents, are still in Gaza awaiting news of their Temporary Residency Visa application. (Submitted by Omar Omar)

When it comes to working with private agencies who can get people out of Gaza for anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 US ($6,770 and $13,500 Cdn) to help them escape into Egypt through the Rafah crossing, he was less optimistic.

“You could say: ‘Well, if these private companies can do that, why can’t the Canadian government? Because those companies are bribing … Egyptian guards at the border, and maybe bribing Hamas as well to allow this to happen.

“Which is great for the people that get out, but obviously, not something that a foreign government can get involved in,” he added. 

‘I will do every single thing in my power’

Even when people have managed to negotiate the Temporary Resident Visa application process and their names have been submitted to both Israeli and Egyptian authorities, the Canadian government confirms they have been unable to leave Gaza. 

Observers say its difficult to understand why this is happening, or who is responsible for preventing them from leaving. 

“I unfortunately don’t have any specific insights on why it’s not happening,” Allen said. “I can tell you we’re not the only country facing this.”

Allen says that there is a sufficient diplomatic presence in both Ramallah and in Israel but that the situation needs to be changed at the ministerial level. 

“These things are not about diplomats,” he added. “This isn’t about our ambassador going into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or not going into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is at a much higher level.”

Omar said Miller’s staff told him IRCC will keep him and representatives from the community informed but in the meantime he says he will keep the pressure on the Liberal government to get his family home. 

“I promised them multiple times that they will come to Canada. And to be honest, I will do every single thing in my power to bring them here,” he said.  

“Even if I will have to go and sit in Ottawa and do a hunger strike until they’re here, because I cannot be treated less as a Canadian than other people.”

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