London

Clients stuck in temporary visa application process as Gaza war escalates, London lawyer says

Four months after the federal government launched a temporary resident visa (TRV) program for people looking to flee Gaza, a local immigration lawyer says none of her roughly three dozen clients who have applied have been approved to come to Canada.

Visa delays continue as concerns mount over planned offensive by Israel into Rafah

People look at destroyed residential buildings.
Palestinians inspect destroyed residential buildings, after the Israeli military withdrew most of its ground troops from the southern Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip April 7, 2024. REUTERS/Ahmed Zakot TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (Ahmed Zakot/Reuters)

Four months after the federal government launched a temporary resident visa (TRV) program for people fleeing Gaza, a southwestern Ontario immigration lawyer says none of her roughly three dozen clients who have applied have been approved to come to Canada.

At the same time, the federal government says it's not aware of any TRV recipients, of which there are dozens, arriving in Canada yet.

Hagar Elsayed represents about 35 clients with connections to the London and Windsor area who have applied through the program, launched by Ottawa in January for extended family of Canadian citizens and permanent residents in Gaza.

Applicants for the temporary three-year visas are required to have up-to-date passports, proof they will have support from a Canadian citizen or permanent resident for one year, and biometric test results which they have to go to Egypt to obtain

Elsayed said her clients had gone through the onerous application process, which also requires documentation they may not have access to, in order to obtain a unique reference code from the Canadian government needed to file a TRV application, but their cases have stalled.

"Some of them haven't received codes, and they keep following up because, [for] a lot of people, it's the last lifeline, the thing they're trying to get so they can leave Gaza... For some of them, we did follow-ups [to] see what's going on, but we haven't heard anything back yet," she said.

"I know different networks of refugee lawyers ... a lot of them are asking each other, 'does anyone have any updates?' And a lot of us just don't."

WATCH | Canadian citizen finally escapes Gaza with family

Canadian citizen finally escapes Gaza with family

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After her home in Gaza was destroyed, Fayza Al-Najjar and her family were taking shelter in a garage when they were displaced yet again. With nowhere else to go, Al-Najjar, who is a Canadian citizen, asked the Canadian embassy for help leaving Gaza and was grateful to get approved within 30 days.

Londoner Majid Abudaia's family are among those seeking a TRV as they look to escape southern Gaza. Their applications were made in mid-January, he said.

Abudaia said he wants more action from the Canadian government in pushing Egypt and Israel to allow those who have submitted TRV applications through the Rafah border crossing.

"I can have a code, I can have a TRV application submitted, but if my government is leaving me to go and pay money to, basically, a war profiteer... what good are they for it?" he said.

"We really need them to demonstrate our friendship with the Israelis and Egyptians... for our loved ones, we deserve to be reunited with them."

The border crossing between Rafah,  Gaza and Egypt.
The border crossing between Rafah, Gaza and Egypt. (Mohamed El Saife/CBC New)

The wait comes as concerns mount about a planned ground offensive by Israel into Rafah, where more than half of the territory's 2.3 million people have sought refuge during the latest Israel-Hamas war, which began Oct. 7 when Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacked southern Israel.

The attack left some 1,200 Israelis dead, and another 250 people were taken hostage. Hamas is still holding around 130 hostages, a quarter of whom are believed to be dead. 

Israel's military response has killed nearly 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza health ministry, and left its two largest cities, Gaza City and Khan Younis, in ruins. Israel has faced accusations of genocide for its offensive, and international aid groups say a ground response in Rafah would be "catastrophic."

'We're not aware of any arrivals at this time'

The biggest obstacle for visa applicants is getting into Egypt for biometric screening. It means waiting for the Egyptian government to approve an exit permit, or paying thousands of dollars to a private Egyptian company to fast track the process.

Elsayed says only 11 of her clients have been able to get into Egypt.

In an emailed statement to CBC News on Wednesday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it had accepted 986 TRV applications into processing which were being reviewed for "eligibility and preliminary admissibility." It's unclear how many applications IRCC has received in total.

"We have put forward names of people who passed preliminary eligibility and admissibility reviews to local authorities for approval, however, Canada does not control who or when someone can exit Gaza," said Matthew Krupovich, an IRCC spokesperson.

IRCC is advocating for approval of those who have passed preliminary security screening to leave Gaza, and is working with partners to support applicants with a connection to Canada, he said.

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The National’s Adrienne Arsenault talks to CBC News correspondents Margaret Evans and Paul Hunter about what the deadly attack on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy means for the course of the war in Gaza and the Palestinian people in desperate need of food aid.

Ottawa has capped the number of approved TRVs at 1,000, a limit immigration and refugee advocates have said should be removed and is not nearly enough to meet demand.

The government says it will increase the number of unique reference codes it gives out for applications by an unspecified amount, but has not announced an increase in TRVs.

As of April 15, at least 129 applicants had been approved to come to Canada, Krupovich said, noting that those issued a TRV arrange their own travel to Canada. "We are not aware of any arrivals at this time," he said.

Members of the Abu Draz family mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at their house in Rafah, southern Gaza, Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Members of the Abu Draz family mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at their house in Rafah, southern Gaza, Thursday, April 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair) (Fatima Shbair/The Associated Press)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Trevithick

Reporter/Editor

Matthew Trevithick is a radio and digital reporter with CBC London. Before joining CBC London in 2023, Matthew worked as a reporter and newscaster with 980 CFPL in London, Ont. Email him at matthew.trevithick@cbc.ca.

With files from Andrew Lupton, the Raffy Boudjikanian, and The Associated Press