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'Time is of the essence': Canadian government urged to introduce special immigration measures to help those with families in Gaza

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As Israel’s ground offensive expands across the Gaza Strip, the NDP is urging the Liberals to immediately create special immigration measures to help Palestinian-Canadians reunite with family members who are stuck in Gaza.

The Hamas-controlled territory has been targeted with Israeli airstrikes and a ground offensive since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, which killed roughly 1,200 people and resulted in the abductions of more than 200 people. Israel resumed airstrikes on Gaza this weekend after a truce came to an end Friday.

The NDP made the announcement Monday during a press conference and in an open letter to the federal immigration and foreign affairs ministers. The party is calling for special immigration measures that would facilitate the evacuation of extended family members of Canadians and permanent residents in Gaza.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the Canadian government needs to create special rules for Palestinians as they did for Syrian, Afghan and Ukrainian refugees.

According to Global Affairs, about 600 people have been able to leave the war-torn territory through the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Those who left are Canadians, Canadian permanent residents and people who meet Ottawa's strict definition of an eligible family member, with exceptions. Eligible family members are spouses, partners or dependent children. Parents, siblings, or adult children over the age of 22 are excluded from this definition.

The department says 426 Canadians in the West Bank and Gaza are registered with the federal government.

Under current immigration rules, Kwan said the definition of family is "very limited."

"You have to win a lottery in order to bring your parents here, grandparents is the same thing," Kwan explained during the Monday press conference. "We need that change because how we define families is very different in different cultures, in different communities. And right now, in this situation, there is an urgent need to bring people to safety."

Kwan said the government used "unprecedented measures" to help Ukrainians fleeing war seek refuge in Canada, showing that such measures are possible.

"It has been done before. And many people will tell you what the Canadian government has done in the case of Ukraine has set a standard and that should actually be a standard that should apply,” she added.

In response to the NDP's call for special immigration measures for Palestinians, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it is working closely with Global Affairs Canada to help Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their eligible family members flee Gaza.

"Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) remains deeply concerned about the situation in Gaza and empathizes with those affected. When responding to international crises, Canada tailors each response to meet the unique needs of those who require support while reflecting the realities of the situation on the ground," IRCC spokesperson Matthew Krupovich said in an email to CTVNews.ca.

Krupovich did not respond to questions for specific details, but said the federal government is “closely monitoring the situation as it evolves and will adapt our response accordingly. Any new developments would be communicated publicly."

Randall Cohn, who handles refugee, asylum and immigration cases at a Vancouver law firm, says Canada's narrow definition of eligible family members for the evacuation list is what's most troubling.

"Canada has autonomy to have absolute discretion to change the definition of family members, to advocate to get more people on that list and to simultaneously commit to processing travel visas in order to facilitate travel to Canada," Cohn said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

In the case of helping Palestinians, the burden on Canada would be limited because in many instances, they have family members here who can support them and provide them with a home, he said.

"There are several hundred families in Canada who are legally in Canada and who have loved ones in Gaza who are stuck in Gaza and in danger there. There's no reason why they should be excluded from eligibility for a travel visa to come to Canada," said Cohn.

Cohn also said he’s working with refugee and immigration lawyers across Canada to amplify the need for special immigration measures for Palestinians.

"So far Canada has refused to extend its definition of eligible family members. We're not talking about restrictions that are created by third parties, we're talking about the failure of the Canadian government to extend that assistance to people other than a very narrow ... definition of family member," he added.

Maureen Silcoff, an immigration and refugee lawyer whose Toronto firm represents Palestinian refugees, similarly said Canada can waive certain immigration requirements, allowing more people to leave the war zone.

"Creating special humanitarian measures would be consistent with Canada’s long history of tailoring immigration programs to meet the moment," she said in an email to CTVNews.ca.

Silcoff said the measure can also go beyond family reunification to include vulnerable people at risk such as LGBTQ2S+ individuals.

CANADIANS WORRIED ABOUT RELATIVES IN GAZA

Kwan and Hamilton Centre NDP MP Matthew Green say they've heard from many Canadians worried about their relatives in Gaza.

"Our community members that we've been talking with are struggling. People are worried sick about their loved ones. They don't know minute by minute, day by day, whether or not they will survive," Kwan said. "Now Canada can do something about this. ... So time is of the essence. As we speak, people's lives are in jeopardy and we need the government to take action."

Kwan noted the Australian government has already enacted special immigration measures for those seeking to depart Gaza and said “Canada must do the same.”

Since the conflict erupted on Oct. 7, the Australian government has approved 860 temporary visas for Palestinians with ties to Australia and 1,739 for Israelis, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported.

Most of these visas allow those sponsored by family members to stay in Australia for up to 12 months, essentially treating them like tourists in the hopes they can eventually return to their homelands.

The NDP also reiterated its demand for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"As we know, the situation in Gaza is getting so desperate that literally as we speak, people's lives are being lost," Kwan said. "And the NDP has called for a ceasefire, and more than ever, we need the government to put in and request for a permanent ceasefire."

Israa Alsaafin of Ottawa said her brother died on Oct. 13 from an explosion on a main road as Israel told Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza for the south. He leaves behind his 10-month-old son and his wife. She said he was accepted into Carleton University's engineering program in 2020 on a student visa, but COVID-19 derailed his plans.

Alsaafin, who has nine family members left in Gaza, said her sister in Gaza has described living through non-stop bombing, buildings crumbling and screams of people asking for help, though paramedics couldn't reach them. Her sister has also been providing her with updates on the dire humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Palestinian territories, where people are suffering homelessness, lack of food, water, fuel and medicine.

"What is this world waiting for? These are the messages my sister's sending to you and to the world, leaving Palestinians to die in the most cruel and inhumane ways will be always shamefully written in our history," she said in the press conference. "Today, my sister begged me to get her out of there because I'm their only hope. Mr. Prime Minister, I'm calling for a ceasefire and this is an overdue request. If you are not doing it for the sake of humanity, please do it for the sake of our Canadian children who are living the disappointment of this shameful history. Mr. Prime Minister, I'm not ready to lose another family member and I'm asking on behalf of my kids to bring their grandparents and immediate family to safety."

Israel's military renewed calls Monday for mass evacuations from the southern town of Khan Younis, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in recent weeks, as it expanded its ground offensive and bombarded targets in the Gaza Strip.

To date, the war has killed at least 15,899 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry, and displaced more than three-fourths of the territory's population of 2.3 million people, who are running out of safe places to go,The Associated Press reports.

With files from CTV News National Correspondent Judy Trinh and The Canadian Press

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