Fatima Shbair Associated Press Palestinians displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict on the Gaza Strip-Egypt border in Rafah on Sunday
Laura Osman – The Canadian Press in Ottawa
The security screening the federal government has put in place for people wanting to flee the Gaza Strip is facing criticism from lawyers who say its questions are too invasive and others who think the screening should be even more in-depth.
A special program that would allow up to 1,000 people in Gaza with relatives in Canada to apply for visas opened last week, with the federal government conducting background checks at a detailed level unusual.
People are asked to provide their social media accounts, details of their scars and other body marks, information about anyone they are related to – including through marriage – and all the passports they had.
Yameena Ansari, a Calgary immigration lawyer who is also a member of the Gaza Family Reunification Project, which lobbied for the program, says these questions create anxiety among families, who fear that their loved ones will are struggling to respond after three months largely without access to the internet, electricity or even adequate food or clean water.
“It’s almost impossible to get these answers when you’re talking about people fleeing their homes,” Ms. Ansari said in an interview. She also says that these questions are also extremely painful, because they suggest that families desperate to flee the violence in Gaza are suspected terrorists.
“This is not a list that we would ask of someone coming to Canada for humanitarian reasons,” added Ms. Ansari. For me, these are the questions I would ask someone if I thought they were a terrorist or a fighter. »
Separately, Lawyers for Secure Immigration, a group formed at the start of the latest war between Israel and Hamas, urged the government in a letter last week to ask more pointed questions related to Hamas and terrorist activities to ensure that no supporters of the armed militant group are allowed to enter Canada.
Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer and member of the newly formed group, called the background questions “grossly insufficient” because they do not investigate possible links to Hamas and the events of October 7.
Mr. Kurland said he understands that it is important for Palestinian-Canadians to bring their families to Canada safely, but clarified that it is not something that can be done “blindly.”
Last weekend marked the 100th day of the war, which erupted on October 7 when Hamas launched a surprise attack on southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 more hostages.
Israel's military response was almost immediate: the country besieged the territory, limiting access to clean water, food, internet and electricity and subduing the strip from Gaza to a near constant barrage of bombs in its pursuit of Hamas.
The humanitarian catastrophe has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents. The Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled territory says 24,000 Palestinians have been killed, although it does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has stated that Palestinians are not considered a greater threat to Canada's security than people from elsewhere in the world, but that ” enhanced biographical information” is part of standard practice in cases where IRCC is unable to conduct an initial on-ground screening.
The background questions are similar to those asked of Afghans who applied to come to Canada after the fall of Kabul in 2021, the department said.
“As we did with Afghanistan, we will collect enhanced biographical information and conduct a security check while the applicant is still in Gaza. Provided no inadmissibility concerns are reported, people who are able to leave Gaza will have their biometric data collected in a third country,” the Immigration Ministry said in a statement.
Shortly after the initial announcement of the Gaza family reunification program, Liberal Mental Health Minister Ya'ara Saks said members of the Israeli community in Canada had expressed their concerns about the program.
The conflict in Gaza has coincided with a massive rise in anti-Semitism across Canada and police have reported an increase in hate crimes directed against the Jewish community.
“This is a limited program, security concerns are well understood and security requirements are strict and follow reviews by Israeli authorities,” Saks assured in an Instagram post on Dec. 22. day after the initial announcement of the immigration program.
“I understand the concerns I have heard from community members. Safety is always the number one priority and we will be vigilant. »
Ms. Saks declined to elaborate on her comments when contacted by The Canadian Press last week.