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Situation in Gaza amounts to 'the largest hostage taking' in the world, says Miller

Immigration Minister Marc Miller rises during Question Period, Thursday, February 1, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Immigration Minister Marc Miller rises during Question Period, Thursday, February 1, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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Canada's immigration minister called the situation in Gaza "the largest hostage taking" in the world during a Thursday news conference.

At least 200 Canadians are still trapped in the enclave and unable to get out despite continued diplomatic pressure, said minister Marc Miller, who met with the Israeli ambassador to Canada last week to discuss getting people out through the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza.

"I made the point that we are trying to save lives and these are family members of Canadians and permanent residents. … We are expecting results, but we haven’t seen any," he said, acknowledging the meeting with the ambassador resulted in no progress.

"It's very frustrating to me. I don’t want to put together a program that is failing, but we’re all failing Gazans at this point," he said.

"It's probably the largest hostage taking, right now, in the world," he continued. "If Canada can play a role in getting people out and safe, we're willing to play it. But right now we haven’t had the success we wanted to."

Rafah has become a massive tent city, where 1.5 million Palestinians are seeking refuge after being displaced by Israeli bombardments and attacks in other parts of Gaza. Since mid-February, Israel has been threatening to invade Rafah with ground forces, despite previously instructing civilians to go there.

The Israeli military says remaining Hamas leaders, including Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind of the Oct. 7 attacks, are hiding in the tunnels in the region.

For the past three days, Palestinian Canadian families have demonstrated outside Parliament Hill to draw attention to delays in processing emergency temporary visas for their extended relatives. When the program was announced on Jan. 9, immigration officials said the applications would be "expedited" but placed a cap on applications at 1,000 people.

No approvals yet

In an email to CTV News Wednesday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) acknowledged that a not a single application has been fully approved.

IRCC says currently 986 applications have been accepted into processing and are being reviewed for eligibility. Miller said on Thursday morning that he was hesitant to further promote the program for fear it would lead to "false hope."

Palestinian-Canadian families held a silent protest outside the West Block earlier this week. The families have applied for emergency temporary visas for extended relatives trapped in Gaza but their applications have been yet to be processed. (Judy Trinh, CTV News)

To leave Gaza, people must get their names on the list of the Rafah Gate authority. Canada can get approved names on the list, but does not have a say in who gets to cross through the gate.

Hamas officials control the exit on the Gaza side, while Egyptian officials are responsible for entry in their country. Meanwhile, the Israelis have final say on who they will let cross.

Global Affairs says Canada has provided consular support to more than 800 Canadians, permanent residents and eligible family members who have crossed the Rafah border since Nov. 1, 2023. Most got out during November's temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which lasted seven days.

As of Feb. 26, IRCC says 12 people who had temporary visa applications in progress have crossed into Egypt without consular assistance. On Thursday morning, Miller said the people were able to get out at "great financial cost."

For three days this week, a group of more than 50 Palestinian Canadians from across the country stood silently outside the doors of the West Block where parliamentarians enter the House of Commons. They held a banner with the words: Save our Gaza families. Children held photos of their grandparents and cousins trapped in the enclave.

The demonstration's organizer, Omar Omar, says some people have lost confidence in the federal government and are reaching out to smugglers.

"We are seeing many people sending money to their families from our community to smuggle people out and bribe the Egyptian government," Omar says, adding it can cost people between $5,000 and $10,000 to get one person out of Gaza.

Consular officials call the extortion and payment made to non-official entities illegal, immoral and unacceptable.

In a statement, Global Affairs said "the Government of Canada is not involved with these services and cannot recommend them or guarantee their legitimacy."

Wesam Nofal's parents Mohammed, 74, and Intisar, 65, left for Cairo from Toronto Pearson International Airport on Feb. 18. The Toronto couple is prepared to bribe gate officials to get Nofal's brother and his family of six out of Gaza. Nofal says she couldn't convince her parents to abandon their plan.

"My mother said 'it's either we go to Gaza to get your brother out or we die with him,'" Nofal said. She's urging the immigration minister to remove the cap on temporary emergency visas and waive the fees.

But Miller says he's hesitant to expand the program out of concern it will entertain "false hope," given that the Israelis are allowing so few foreign nationals to exit the war zone.

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