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NDP slam Liberals for slow reunification programs for relatives stuck in Gaza, Sudan

NDP MP for Vancouver East Jenny Kwan (front) speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, May 22, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press) NDP MP for Vancouver East Jenny Kwan (front) speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, May 22, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
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The NDP has accused the government of bungling measures introduced months ago that were meant to bring relatives of Canadians from conflict zones in Sudan and the Gaza Strip to safety.

"Not one person has been able to get to safety through the government's special immigration measures," NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan told reporters Wednesday on Parliament Hill.

"This is perhaps one of the most urgent situations before us, that the government needs to take action on."

She spoke alongside three Canadians with relatives trapped abroad, who have spent thousands of dollars to help their family members survive.

They had each hoped to sponsor relatives through special emergency programs designed to bring their loved ones to safety, provided that they can support their family members when they arrive in Canada. 

The office of Immigration Minister Marc Miller did not have an immediate response to the criticism.

In Sudan, civil war broke out last spring, yet officials have said they don't expect relatives to reach Canada until the end of this year.

Einam Mohammadian, who has roots in Sudan, said it's been painful to see her relatives flee the conflict to Ethiopia, which has its own recurring ethnic violence.

Officials told her the delays stem from a lack of access to equipment needed for fingerprinting and other biometric requirements, she said. She questions why her family and others can't be transported to a place where the equipment is available. 

"This government left us behind. In 2019, the whole government stood up and said Black Lives Matter, but in this crisis we feel that black lives don't matter anymore," she said.

Safinaz El-Sohl broke into tears when recounting desperate calls from her relatives in Gaza; the lack of answers from Canadian officials leaves her with little to tell her family members.

"We've been treated as though this was never an emergency, and that our families do not matter and our emotions can be pushed aside," she said.

Some people have been able to leave the besieged territory by paying thousands of dollars to private firms in Egypt, but communication from Canadian officials left many with the impression that their loved ones would be disqualified from the program if they escaped the Gaza Strip too early in the application process, she said. 

Many later learned they could still be eligible for a Canadian visa program if they leave Gaza. 

Gaza's only civilian border crossing with Egypt has been closed since May 7, when Israel invaded the densely populated city and seized control of the crossing.

That means people who chose to not pay their way out beforehand are now trapped, El-Sohl said, all because they were trying to follow the rules.

"We're being left alone in the dark without any glimpses of hope," she said. "We deserve to be treated with the same respect and basic rights of all Canadians."

Another woman, Israa Alsaafin, said the government's approach to the crisis in Gaza smacks of racism. She's gone into debt to pay the $70,000 to get her relatives out of Gaza to Egypt.

Immigration officials told her in closed-door meetings that they're working to rectify the issues, and that it's complicated to get approval from Israel to allow people to leave.

Yet allied countries have evacuated some relatives, she noted. Australian media have reported that 330 Palestinians from Gaza arrived in that country by early February.

"I'm tired of hearing just promises, we need real action," Alsaafin said.

"We should stop the anti-Palestinian racism that's being done through this government, and nobody is caring about it."

Documents tabled in Parliament at the request of the NDP show that Ottawa had requested that Israel allow a total of 304 people in Gaza to leave the territory as part of the family reunification program. 

Canada has allowed some 4,467 Palestinians to apply for the program, though many have been unable to escape the Palestinian territory.

It's unknown if any have reached Canada. Kwan believes none have.

The Liberals haven't learned from the mistakes made during the emergency resettlement of Afghans, Kwan said, and bureaucratic hurdles are leaving people to die in conflict zones.

"They just lurch from crisis to crisis," she said. "The government has demonstrated that they are insincere, and they have learned nothing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024

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