Why is Canada asking Palestinians to list scars on Gaza visa applications?

Canada’s new temporary visa programme boasts strict requirements for Palestinians hoping to flee Israel’s war in Gaza.

Palestinians arrive in Rafah on January 22 after fleeing Khan Younis amid Israel’s continued bombardment of Gaza [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]By Jillian Kestler-D’AmoursPublished On 25 Jan 202425 Jan 2024

Montreal, Canada – Abdallah Alhamadni knows the clock is ticking.

Every day, the 51-year-old Palestinian father of three checks to see whether his efforts to bring his relatives in Gaza to safety have advanced.

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But Alhamadni, a Canadian permanent resident who lives in Milton, Ontario, says he is stuck in a dangerous waiting game, as Israel continues to wage war on the Gaza Strip.

“We feel paralysed, depressed, frustrated, crying,” he told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes we feel we need to be strong to support them because we are the only hope for them. It’s a lot of things coming together, and we are alone.”

Originally from the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, Alhamadni is trying to bring 61 relatives, including 27 children, to Canada through a new temporary visa programme for Palestinians affected by Israel’s military offensive.

Unveiled last month, the scheme allows Canadian citizens and permanent residents to apply to bring extended family members from Gaza to the country, where they will be granted a temporary residency visa for up to three years.

But the process has prompted criticism from applicants and human rights advocates.

Alhamadni called it confusing and time-consuming. Gaza remains under heavy Israeli fire and faces regular electricity and internet outages, so Alhamadni has struggled to reach his relatives and obtain the information necessary to complete the applications.

The amount of personal details Palestinians are being asked to provide has also come under scrutiny, with Canadian immigration lawyers saying the process goes beyond what is typically required.

Alhamadni’s brother, Suhail Alhamadni, and Suhail’s daughter Miral stand amid bombing wreckage in Gaza in October [Courtesy Abdallah Alhamadni]

One form (PDF) asks people to provide a detailed employment history going back to age 16, as well as links to social media accounts and a list of all their in-laws. It also asks applicants to detail any scars or injuries that required medical attention, including how they sustained them.

“They are putting all [these] impossible conditions on top of our heads,” said Alhamadni, who told Al Jazeera that his relatives have been displaced multiple times since the war in Gaza began. “I’m trying [to do] whatever I can.”

The programme

Marc Miller, Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, announced the opening of the temporary resident visa programme on January 9, three months after the war in Gaza began.

The move came amid public calls for the Canadian government to do more to help residents of the besieged enclave. At least 25,900 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza since the start of the war on October 7.

Top United Nations officials have repeatedly called for a ceasefire as the territory reels from the mass displacement of its residents, a crippled healthcare system, and a lack of water, food and other humanitarian supplies.

“The situation on the ground in Gaza is challenging and volatile,” Miller said in a statement announcing the Canadian visa programme. “These new measures provide a humanitarian pathway to safety and recognize the importance of keeping families together given the ongoing crisis.”

But Ottawa faced immediate criticism when it revealed it only planned to issue up to 1,000 temporary visas to Palestinians from Gaza — a cap that rights advocates said was too low. Miller later said there was no strict limit on the number of applications that would be accepted.

In an email to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the programme “expires once 1,000 applications have been accepted into processing or one year after the public policy comes into effect, whichever comes first”.

“IRCC continues to be flexible as we assess the situation, including the volumes of applications received and the ability to facilitate eligible family members to leave Gaza and reach a safe third country,” the spokesman said.

As of January 16, Canada was processing 144 applications, though none had been finalised, the spokesman added. The government also said there is no guarantee that applicants will be able to leave Gaza, which is under a strict Israeli siege.

Egypt has also limited departures through the Rafah crossing at Gaza’s southern border, as part of a long-running blockade.

“If people are able to leave Gaza, the security assessment will be completed in the third county where IRCC will be able to collect biometrics,” the IRCC spokesperson said. “IRCC will then finalize the [temporary resident visa] application and render a decision on whether [the] individual is approved to come to Canada.”

Bureaucratic ‘cruelty’

According to Naseem Mithoowani, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, the Canadian government has failed to provide adequate information and clear communication about the visa programme, fuelling confusion in the Palestinian community.

“People are anxious about the cap and whether that’s going to be expanded; how applications are being assessed in terms of their place in the queue; [and] why some people getting further ahead than others despite applying at the same time,” Mithoowani told Al Jazeera.

“There’s a lack of transparency around the process itself.”

She said Palestinian Canadians have also expressed concern about some of the programme requirements, including being able to provide financial support for their relatives from Gaza. They also have asked who will see the information provided in the applications and whether it will be shared with other countries.

“The Palestinian community has lost a lot of trust in our government, and so that’s part of, I think, the increased anxiety levels or the increased need for communication in this particular case,” Mithoowani said.

Yameena Ansari, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Calgary, also said that, while the programme initially provided a “ray of hope” for many Palestinians in Canada, “their hopes were quickly dashed” when they understood its limited scope and requirements.

“We have been informed that these very invasive questions that are being asked are coming from Canada. They’re not coming from Israel or Egypt,” she told Al Jazeera.

Security checks are an ordinary part of the immigration process, Ansari explained. But “the idea of throwing that many forms at people who are trying to flee a crisis” is unfathomable.

“Something that is never lost on me … is the cruelty of forms,” Ansari said. “We can be cruel to people in bureaucratic, administrative ways.”

She also pointed out that what may appear to be a small barrier to applying could be insurmountable for someone grappling with violence and displacement.

Minister defends plan

When asked about the outcry over the visa application’s questions, the IRCC spokesman told Al Jazeera that Canada is employing a “multi-stage security screening approach” to the Gaza visa programme.

“This is part of a standard practice in crisis response situations where IRCC does not have a presence on the ground to initiate initial screening and collection of biometrics, as we did with Afghanistan,” the spokesman said.

“The additional background information established in the form allows us to collect enhanced biographic information to begin conducting security screening while the applicant is still in Gaza.”

Miller, Canada’s immigration minister, also has pointed to security concerns to justify the questions. “These are details that we need. We do not know who these people are; they are not Canadians, they are not permanent residents,” he told CBC last week.

“Anyone that has any experience immigrating to Canada knows that there are a lot of intrusive questions, and coming to Canada — to be quite frank — is not a right. I think we do, on the other hand, have an obligation in this humanitarian catastrophe to do something,” Miller said.

“A lot of sympathy for the people that have to go through this — I can’t imagine the situation they’re in. But we do need assurances about who we are getting out, and those details I do concede often can be intrusive.”

‘Absurd, unconscionable’

However, Julia Sande, a human rights law and policy campaigner at Amnesty International Canada, drew a contrast between Canada’s response to Israel’s war in Gaza and its reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Just weeks after the war in Ukraine began in 2022, Ottawa launched a special immigration pathway to allow Ukrainians and their immediate family members — including those without any ties to Canada — to seek safety in the country.

There was no cap on the number of applicants. Some fees and other procedures were waived, and more than 210,000 Ukrainians have since arrived in Canada through the scheme, according to government figures.

“The programme for Ukrainians fleeing was something, I guess, unusual when you compare it to Canada’s programmes historically, but it was wonderful,” Sande said. “It showed that Canada is more than capable of opening its arms and welcoming people fleeing dangerous situations.”

Yet in the case of Gaza, Sande pointed out that the Canadian government has erected additional barriers for Palestinians “knowing that they’re fleeing abominable levels of suffering”.

“On what basis are we treating civilians in Gaza differently? What assumptions are being made about them?” Sande asked. The process, she said, raises concerns about racism and the prospect that “Gazans are being painted as a security threat”.

Palestinians fleeing Khan Younis arrive in Rafah in southern Gaza on January 22 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

“The requirement to explain scars when you’re a population that’s been subjected to relentless bombardment, which Canada itself may be contributing to through its arms exports to Israel — it’s absurd, it’s unconscionable,” she said.

For Alhamadni, the wait drags on. His family’s visa requests remain in the early stages of the application process, and Alhamadni continues to be consumed with fear that the visas may be issued too late, if they’re issued at all.

“My family is the [whole] world. My family is everything for me,” he said. “I can’t wait for a minute. In a minute, something will happen. One bomb will come.”

Yet despite the hurdles, Alhamadni — who is raising money to help pay for his relatives’ visa applications and their journeys to Canada — stressed that he has not lost hope.

“I believe one day that we’ll have our freedom,” he told Al Jazeera. “One day the light will come. One day we’ll see a better future.”

Source: Al Jazeera