Canada’s Immigration Minister Marc Miller says the federal government’s stated 1,000-person limit on temporary resident visas for Palestinians looking to flee Gaza is not a hard cap, despite previous suggestions.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, Miller told host Vassy Kapelos that “no,” the limit as previously stated is not set in stone.
“It is conventional for a number of these programs to have an internal number that is established. This was one that we thought at the outset — in the context of something being done in a relatively short period of time understanding that it’s a war zone in Gaza — was something to manage flow, understand what the numbers are, and then you know remain flexible on the fly if we do see numbers that exceed that.”
This comes, after Palestinian-Canadians and advocates told CTV News that they thought the federal government’s new program limiting temporary resident visas to 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza was unfair and “inhumane,” pointing out that Ottawa had no cap to assist Ukrainians in 2022 when Russia invaded their country.
The special extended family program launched Tuesday as heavy bombardment continued in Gaza during the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. The war erupted following the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023 that killed approximately 1,200 people.
The program allows Palestinians who are extended family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to stay in Canada for three years if their families can financially support them.
It will cost $100 per applicant, or $500 for one family unit, regardless of size.
Miller’s department, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, told reporters that the program would expire after it had accepted 1,000 applications for processing, or a year after it goes into effect. But the minister has now indicated it’s not that cut and dry.
Miller also noted that despite the concerns being raised, based on the traffic to the federal hotline that was set up over the holidays, the number of families reaching out “remains modest.”
But, now that the portal is open, Miller said he remains open to the degree of interest increasing over the coming days.
“Again, to the families, obviously we will be remaining flexible. This is not a generalized resettlement program. It is a specific targeted program for families of loved ones that are Canadians, to keep people safe and alive,” Miller said.
The government’s announcement of the program sparked calls from Palestinians and advocacy groups, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, to remove the cap.
Palestinian-Canadians and advocates have been imploring the Canadian government to rescue their loved ones in Gaza in the months since Israel’s retaliatory attacks began, and have been critical of the program’s cap since it was announced.
More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, as of Tuesday, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
Asked why there was a cap to begin with, Miller said when the government first announced this program in December it did not, and still to some degree does not, have a “clear sense” of the volume of people who may have connections to Canada and would be looking to apply, suggesting the number was in the hundreds.
“It’s about managing a flow of a number that we are uncertain about, and making sure that we have gotten this program right,” Miller said. “We’re willing to remain flexible. We want to get a sense of what that volume is, and that’s why we put this number there … but we’ll get a sense over the coming days of what that number actually looks like.”
CANADA ACCUSED OF DOUBLE STANDARD
CANADA ACCUSED OF DOUBLE STANDARD
Grace Batchoun, the Palestinian-Canadian co-founder of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East in Montreal, called the visa program a “first step,” but also pointed to what she called a “double standard,” noting Ukrainians were treated differently when they sought refuge in Canada.
“There should be no competition for scarcity,” Batchoun said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca. “Like forcing people in Gaza to compete for those few visas, I find that it’s inhumane. … So we’ve got a … humanitarian disaster. Many people, lawyers are calling it a genocide. And why are we dealing with the Palestinians differently from how we dealt with the Ukrainians?”
The number of Ukrainians that have since arrived in Canada is more than 210,000.
This program was without limits and without mandatory connections to Canada, such as family members who are citizens. That program received more than a million applications and allowed them to stay for up to three years.
“We all see the double standards, we all see the hypocrisy, and it hurts us,” Batchoun said. “It hurts us so much as Canadians. And we expect better from our Canadian government … If we care about humanity, we should treat everyone equally and give everyone the same opportunity to get refuge in Canada.”
Matthew Krupovich, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in an email to CTVNews.ca that the program “takes into consideration the volatility on the ground and the difficulty that Canada and like-minded countries are having in moving people from Gaza to Egypt.”
In response to criticism ahead of Miller’s remarks that the program is unfair to Palestinians, Krupovich said, “The immigration responses are tailored to each different context to meet the unique needs of those who require our support.
“Program intake caps and/or expiry dates are a standard practice in public policies. We must see what the interest is, the approval numbers, and the ability to facilitate eligible family members to leave Gaza and reach a safe third country.”
He added, “We will continue to work with our partners to support efforts to address the needs of vulnerable people affected by violence and insecurity and to help keep families together.”
Asked to comment, Miller said while he understands the emotion, he thinks the comparison “is not something that is appropriate.”
“In the case of Ukraine, we also had partner countries that were willing to do their fair share in resettling people and making sure that they had a safe temporary space outside of Ukraine, we have no sense that this is happening with respect to Gaza,” Miller said.
Randall Cohn, an immigration lawyer in Vancouver, said Canada should make an “unequivocal commitment” to do everything it can to help reunite Canadians with loved ones in Gaza.
Cohn is part of the Gaza Family Reunification Project, an ad hoc group of Canadian immigration and refugee lawyers who are urging immediate assistance for people in Gaza with Canadian ties.
“The cap is arbitrary, and it forces Canadian-Palestinian families with loved ones in Gaza to compete with one another for the limited spots,” said Cohn in an email to CTVNews.ca. “It will also unfairly benefit those who have better access to and/or facility with technology, those who are able to retain counsel to assist them, and those who have the required information and supporting documents close at hand at the time that the application portal begins accepting applications.”
Cohn says he has concerns the program is excluding people. Fiancés and orphaned nieces and nephews of Canadian citizens and permanent residents are not eligible, he listed as examples, as well as families of people who have been granted refugee protection by Canada but who are not yet permanent residents or citizens.
Cohn said the program also requires eligible applicants who have already applied and paid fees for temporary visas to re-apply under the new program.
The program applies to the spouse, common-law partner, child (regardless of age), grandchild, sibling, parent or grandparent of a Canadian or permanent resident, and their immediate family members, Krupovich said. Immediate family members include the spouse, common-law partner, dependent child, and dependent child of a dependent child.
‘NOW MY FAMILY OWNS NOTHING’
‘NOW MY FAMILY OWNS NOTHING’
Omar Omar, a senior operations manager in technology in Vancouver, is helping his parents, his two sisters and their husbands and children in Gaza apply for visas through this program.
Omar said he has well-established, middle-class family members in Gaza with a family business, houses and land, which have now been destroyed or partially damaged by bombs. None of them wanted to leave until the war made the territory “unlivable,” he added.
“My parents never wanted to leave or come to Canada, although now my family owns nothing and the basic human needs in the Gaza Strip are not vanished,” he said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
His sisters are recovering from injuries incurred during the bombing after a long wait for medical treatment, he said.
He said the program itself isn’t even providing the minimum assistance needed for Palestinians.
“This program limits people’s ability to come as families now have to pick and choose who comes and doesn’t, and this is not fair,” Omar said, noting people are being left to die in the Gaza Strip.
PALESTINIAN-CANADIAN FEELS SURVIVOR’S GUILT
PALESTINIAN-CANADIAN FEELS SURVIVOR’S GUILT
Since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7, Dalya Shaath has lost 23 family members in Gaza.
Shaath, a Montreal-based Palestinian-Canadian children’s therapist, said every day she wakes up, she feels survivor’s guilt because she wants to help her relatives in Gaza but feels she can’t do much. She said she’s frustrated her relatives aren’t eligible under the new temporary resident visa program because they aren’t considered immediate family members.
“The situation is so, so bad and I’m incapable of doing anything,” Shaath, who has lived in Canada for 25 years, said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
She said the situation in Gaza is “catastrophic” due to a lack of food, water and shelter.
“One of my cousins, he is now living and sleeping in a hospital in Rafah,” she explained. “Last week his mother, she passed away because there was no insulin, and she also died of dehydration. … There is an epidemic taking place because of all the dead bodies all around them. … Everyone, honestly speaking, is just waiting: ‘Are we going to be killed today or tomorrow’?”
Miller said while he hopes to start approving incoming applications as soon as possible, “it will take some time,” citing the biometric and security clearance requirements, while vowing Canada will do what it can to help people get out as expeditiously as possible.
Overarching these concerns is the feasibility for any accepted extended family members to find their way out of the war zone.
According to the latest figures from the government, 710 Canadians, permanent residents and their eligible family members have crossed into Egypt through the Rafah border since Nov. 1, 2023, while approximately 160 Canadians are still in Gaza seeking to leave.
Throughout the conflict, Canadian officials have cautioned that while the government puts forward names of who should be approved for exit, it does not ultimately decide who can leave Gaza.
With files from CTV News’ Rachel Aiello and Judy Trinh, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press