An immigration lawyer in Toronto says new figures from the federal government show just how "grudging" Ottawa's efforts have been to rescue Canadians' family members from the war in the Gaza Strip.

Figures obtained by The Canadian Press through an access to information request show Canadians filed 7,549 initial visa applications for their family members in Gaza from the day the program opened on Jan. 9 to April 1.

Debbie Rachlis, who represents dozens of applicants in the multi-step process, says many of those applications are for entire families — sometimes up to 10 people — who have Canadian connections and are trying to escape Gaza.

She says the data is "shocking" and contradicts federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller's comments before the program launched that interest seemed "modest" and that the number of people who might benefit was "in the hundreds."

Rachlis says it also shows that Ottawa's initial intent to cap the program at 1,000 visas would have excluded thousands of people who potentially qualify.

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says that just 179 visas had been issued as of April 29.

Annie O'Dell, an immigration lawyer working in the St. John's, N.L., area, says Canada could do more to lift some of the excessive security requirements for a visa and get them to people sooner.

She says the government could stop requiring applicants to travel to Cairo for a final screening, because people trying to cross the border from Gaza to Egypt might have an easier time with a Canadian visa in hand.

O'Dell represents Sawsan Karashuli, a Palestinian-Canadian woman in Ontario, who applied in January for a visa for her brother and her niece. The brother has since died of starvation in northern Gaza, and his 25-year-old daughter has been left there alone, O'Dell said.

Neither received a visa.

"I do wonder how many of those … applications have gone out for people who are now dead," O'Dell said in an interview. "I would say that the Canadian government does bear some responsibility in the delays to those people who are no longer with us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.