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Gov't to offer 3-year visas to Canadians' extended family in Gaza, starting in 2024

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Canada is rolling out new immigration measures including granting temporary visas to individuals in Gaza who are related to Canadians, as well as Israelis and Palestinians already in this country.

Noting that many Canadians are concerned about the safety of their loved ones currently in Gaza, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller announced Thursday that the government is going to be granting three-year temporary resident visas for extended family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

"So they can come to Canada and be reunited with their family members residing here," he said, while cautioning Canada has no assurances regarding further evacuations from the Hamas-controlled territory.

Miller estimates the new the program will be in effect by Jan. 9, vowing the upcoming holidays won't impede his department's work on this file.

Eligible family members who will be able to apply include: the spouse, common law partner, child regardless of age, grandchild, sibling, parent or grandparent of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, as well as their immediate family members. Documentation including proof of relationship and biometrics will be required.

Effective Thursday, the federal government is also making fee-exempt study permits or open work permits available for immediate family members of Canadian citizens or permanent residents, provided that they currently live in Canada, and that they left Israel or the Palestinian territories on or after Oct. 7.

"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.

The minister said he has also directed that all existing and new permanent residency applications for Palestinians within the family-based streams be given priority processing, as Gaza is currently "unliveable."

Miller announced the trio of measures during a press conference in Ottawa, providing an update for Canadians "affected by the conflict in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

"The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has created a humanitarian catastrophe of an unprecedented scale in Gaza," he said. 

First signalling this news was afoot, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that while the government has in facilitating more than 600 Canadian citizens and their families in fleeing Gaza, more work was needed.

"Obviously, it's an extremely difficult situation," Trudeau said.

Miller estimated Thursday that these measures could result in hundreds of Canadians' loved ones making their way to this country, potentially with sponsorship assistance.

"If you extrapolate from the number of people that we have brought out, and look at perhaps what their family relations are, it looks like it could be in the hundreds but we don't have a clear precise sense at this time," he said.

This development comes after the Liberals faced pressure from families and the federal NDP to find special pathways to bring extended family members of Canadians out of the region. Recognizing the advocacy from Canadians that led to Thursday's announcement, Miller said the policy changes are about keeping families together.

"New Democrats welcome this long overdue announcement by the federal government," NDP MP Jenny Kwan said in a statement. "Families have been waiting for this day for too long." 

The minister has said while Canadian officials remain in contact with consular staff on the ground pushing for more evacuations—as an estimated 200 individuals registered with Global Affairs Canada remained trapped— the situation in the war zone remains precarious.

While cautioning that despite Canada doing what it can to help, Miller noted the government doesn't determine who, when, or how many individuals can leave the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. 

The war erupted after Hamas killed some 1,200 people and seized around 240 captives in a surprise attack in Israel on Oct. 7. Israel responded with airstrikes, a ground offensive in Gaza, and by cutting off access to essential supplies. As of Thursday, according to The Associated Press, citing the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, nearly 20,000 Palestinians have been killed.

"We will continue to work with our partners in the region to facilitate the exit of Canadian citizens, permanent residents and eligible family members," Miller said. 

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) have also welcomed the development, while continuing to urge Canada to press for an immediate ceasefire, lamenting that the measures "are too late for many Canadians whose family members have been killed in Gaza since the war began."

"We must end this nightmare for all the people of Gaza who have no chance to leave," said CJPME vice-president Michael Bueckert in a statement.

Israa Alsaafin, a Canadian whose brother was killed in October while trying to evacuate, and has other loved ones trapped in Gaza, is imploring the government to move as quickly as possible to implement the new visa measures. Speaking to reporters in Ottawa after Miller's announcement, she said "every day counts."

"The priority of… my family here, is to bring everybody to safety," she said. "A lot of Canadians here in Canada are living every day with the pain and the worrying about their families, and nobody deserves to live these emotions."

Canada's immigration department has opened a dedicated phone line for enquiries on these measures: 613-321-4243. To prioritize an online inquiry, the government is advising using the keyword "MOME2023" when filling out the form. 

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