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1,000 Palestinian refugees – Surely Canada can do better than that

Despite the challenges of leaving Gaza, the quota suggests a double standard

By: /
22 January, 2024
According to the UN, 1.9 million people in Gaza, 85 percent of the population, have been displaced. Image by Hosny Salah/Pixabay. According to the UN, 1.9 million people in Gaza, 85 percent of the population, have been displaced. Image by Hosny Salah/Pixabay.
Romain Chauvet
By: Romain Chauvet
Canadian journalist based in Europe.

Following the October 7 attack by the Hamas terrorist group on Israel, which killed at least 1,200 people and resulted in the capture of some 250 hostages, Israel launched an extensive military offensive on the Gaza Strip, that has divided the international community as Palestinian casualties mount. According to Palestinian health officials in Gaza, just over 24,000 people have been killed while the United Nations Palestinian Refugee Agency estimated that 1.9 million more, 85 percent of Gaza’s entire population, have been displaced. 

Faced with this critical humanitarian situation, and after criticism about its lack of response, Ottawa announced in December a new program to deliver temporary visas to help people fleeing the war. Canada’s federal minister responsible for immigration and refugees, Marc Miller, said that 1,000 Palestinian refugees could obtain three-year visas if they met eligibility and admissibility criteria, one of which is to have Canadian relatives. Another catch – applicants had to make it across the border into Egypt for biometric screening (fingerprints and photo) and then wait for final approval, which is still the case today and why so few applications have been processed so far.

While Canada is renowned for its openness regarding the reception of refugees, the miniscule quota and strict conditions surprised many. “That’s a bit of a double standard,” said Marie Lamensch recently, program and outreach coordinator at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. “The number of 1,000 really seems quite low, even if Miller said it could possibly be more. Compared to what we saw for Ukrainian refugees it’s quite limited.”

Ottawa has in fact implemented major refugee reception programs in the recent past.  For example, after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Canada quickly approved just over 930,000 applications to enter Canada from Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. As of now, 210,178 have arrived in Canada. More than 45,000 refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in 2021 were also welcomed here, while the Syrian resettlement initiative led to over 40,000 Syrians arriving here Canada.

However, this time the criteria are stricter for Palestinians, such as having relatives  who can financially support them during their time in Canada. “What we call a restricted family is really restricted, it’s quite limited,” said Lamensch. “The process is very demanding (…) it takes time and during this time the families are in danger.” So how can we explain what seems to be a different approach by Canada?

Firstly, the regional situation is different. “In some ways, it appears as a slow approach, but I think it’s affected by the facts of the situation,” said Stephanie Bangarth, professor in History at the University of Western Ontario, who specializes in immigration history and human rights. “One big significant factor in all of this, compared to the other refugee’s situation, is the fact that no neighbouring countries are willing to host Palestinian refugees [from Gaza] from where Canada can make more significant attempts to take more refugees.”

Ukrainians were, for example, able to take refuge in Poland or elsewhere in the European Union quickly, thanks to the activation of temporary protection, after the start of the 2022 Russian invasion. “Palestinians remain in Gaza where it’s extraordinarily difficult to get people out and provide assistance,” added Bangarth. Furthermore, many Palestinians worry that if they do enter Egypt, Israel may not allow them to return.

Crossings at the Rafah border post, the exit door from Gaza to Egypt, are very limited, so humanitarian aid is difficult to transport there. Moreover, Egypt, who already has several million refugees, has no desire to welcome more Palestinians on its territory, especially if they are under the influence of Hamas, an emanation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the sworn enemy of President Abdul Fattah Al-Sissi’s regime.

Ottawa also highlights the regional situation. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said by email that “movement out of Gaza remains extremely challenging, and may not be possible as countries and other actors set their own entry and exit requirements.” The federal government already said in December that it cannot guarantee safe passage out of the besieged Palestinian territory.

Another fear shared by several experts and countries is that the emigration of  Palestinians from the Gaza Strip could be seen as an abandonment of their land. “Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions permit,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said. “They cannot, they must not be pushed to leave Gaza.” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada also mentioned that its temporary visa program was just that “while the situation in Gaza unfolds and then (they will) return home.”

Despite this, calls for greater responsiveness to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza are increasing in Ottawa. The organization ‘Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East’ describes Ottawa’s position as being “racist and inhumane.” A recent op-ed in the Toronto Star titled Canada must expand eligibility to welcome Palestinians fleeing the ‘Worst Place on Earth’ called on Ottawa to review its program, repeating the words of the Global Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, who also described Gaza in October as “one of the worst places on Earth.”

“We need to continue to put pressure on the government,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Debbie Rachlis, who is also a member of the ‘Gaza Family Reunification Project’. “For me,” Rachlis added, “this is not enough considering the severity of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis on the ground.”

Can the International Court of Justice (IJC) have a meaningful impact on stopping the conflict and supporting the reception of refugees? South Africa has recently made its genocide case against Israel at the IJC. They argued the Israeli attacks on Gaza could amount to genocide. The Israeli government, in-turn, rejected all of the allegations, but if the court rules in favour of South Africa, what impact could it have on the conflict? Arguably, very little. 

The ICJ is currently examining South Africa’s case and could rule on provisional measures very soon such as ordering Israel to immediately suspend its military operations in Gaza. If it does, the court could then turn its attention to the question of genocide, which could take years before a decision is rendered. No matter, the ICJ has no mechanism to enforce any of its rulings as the international community has already witnessed, when Moscow ignored the court’s decision that it cease its military operations in Ukraine.

For now, there is no sign of let-up on Israel’s side. The Israeli Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, recently and openly encouraged “the migration of residents of Gaza” as a “solution” to the conflict. While calls for a ceasefire are increasing, Ottawa has so far not announced any changes to its Palestinian reception program.

This is not the first time that Canada has faced criticism over its handling of refugees. After the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Ottawa was criticized for its slowness regarding the reception of Afghan refugees and for abandoning Afghans who helped Canada in the past.

Stephanie Bangarth hopes that like at that time Canada will also amend its position for the Palestinians. “Our early response to refugees from Afghanistan who wanted to escape when the Taliban took over started off very, very slowly and seems to have picked up now. In some ways it’s a similar situation because of the challenges to take out people who are under the control of the Taliban.” 

Finally for Marie Lamensch no matter the situation, the lives of civilians should always come first. “If these families want to leave they want to leave, they are in danger. What really matters to me is to protect the Palestinians, it is important to protect civilians.” 

It’s also possible that a recent visit of five Canadian MPs to refugee camps in the occupied West Bank could lead to a change to Canada’s overall response to the situation in Gaza. Indeed, the Immigration Minister has said the 1,000 person temporary resident visa cap was not fixed in stone. Still, fixed or not, the messaging, especially for those with families in Gaza, signals a double standard when Canadians know that Canada can and should do better.

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