Getting the spouse of a Canadian permanent resident out of Gaza required the threat of a lawsuit, according to emails between a lawyer and Canadian officials seen by CBC News. This after Ottawa told the wife she could not leave the besieged territory without being accompanied by her husband, who is in Vancouver.
Randall Cohn is a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer whose client’s spouse is Palestinian and living in Gaza. She was awaiting a visa to live with her husband in Canada when the war broke out.
When Global Affairs Canada (GAC) announced on Oct. 11 that Canada would work on getting people out of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, Cohn’s client tried to register his spouse for the evacuation list, as spouses of Canadian permanent residents were eligible.
But the registration was denied on Oct. 16 by a representative of the Emergency Watch and Response Centre (EWRC) — GAC’s emergency consular branch — who told Cohn’s client via email that flights are only offered to non citizens and those who don’t have permanent residency if they are “accompanied by an immediate family member” who is a citizen or permanent resident.
“They were basically adding an additional requirement that they had to be with their person, and that wasn’t the way that it was described in the news release,” Cohn said.
He followed up with GAC on behalf of his client the same day via email, noting that the policy in GAC’s media statement did not exclude immediate family members from the evacuation list based on whether they were travelling with a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. He also requested his client’s application “be processed immediately without prejudice.”
The agency confirmed receipt of his message, but did not respond to his request. Cohn then filed a lawsuit at the Federal Court of Canada seeking a judicial review of the refusal.
A few days later, he confirmed his client’s spouse had been added to the evacuation list and withdrew his lawsuit. According to Cohn, she was not only added to the list, but was also in the first cohort of 75 Canadians and family members allowed to leave Gaza on Nov. 7. She is now safely in Canada with her husband.
Cohn says his client’s experience indicates a problem with how GAC selects evacuees, especially considering not everyone has access to a lawyer.
“I’m glad to know that I can help my client, but I’m troubled to know that I had to help my client,” Cohn said. “I don’t know at this stage whether others who were in her situation … [are] getting on the list in a fair way.”
In another similar instance, the wife and newborn baby of Ahmad Abualjedian, a Canadian permanent resident, were initially denied evacuation assistance out of Gaza, but were added to the list and made it out days after a CBC news segment aired about the family’s plight.
A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson told CBC they are “not aware of any lawsuits or media coverage” that influenced the evacuation list.
“The people who are eligible from Canada, we collect their names. We give their names to the relevant authorities in the region, which includes Egypt and Israel,” the spokesperson told CBC. “They are the ones who decide who gets to leave each day.”
The spokesperson said the official policy since the start of the war is that evacuees from Gaza “do not have to be accompanied by the citizen or permanent resident to be on the list.” They said that they don’t know how many people were told that this is a requirement.
“For privacy reasons, [GAC] can’t comment on individual cases,” they said.
So far, 356 people on Canada’s evacuation list have made it across the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, according to the latest update from GAC, with the largest contingent of 232 people evacuated on Nov. 12.
‘Go buy a ticket’
Like thousands of people in Gaza over the past month, Cohn says his client’s family home has been bombed and his client’s spouse was injured when a building was hit near where she and her family were sheltering.
The war in the region was sparked by an unprecedented Hamas attack on Israelis on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 people were taken hostage, according to the Israeli government.
Israel has responded with a full blockade of the Gaza Strip, constant bombing for over a month, including hospitals and refugee camps, along with a ground offensive. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, 11,240 people have been killed so far, including over 4,600 children.
Cohn also noted a discrepancy between how Canada evacuated people from Israel with government-sponsored flights, but those travelling to Canada from Cairo are told to do so at their own expense. Officials have given Gaza evacuees three days to stay in Egypt before they have to move on to their final destinations.
For those who cannot afford to pay for flights after leaving the war zone in Gaza, GAC says it offers “financial assistance” in the form of private fund transfers and emergency loans, as well as connections to organizations that can assist people with onward travel.
According to the GAC spokesperson, Israeli evacuees were flown to Athens on sponsored flights after which they had to pay for their own travel. For Gaza evacuees, GAC says Canada is sponsoring their bus trip from Rafah to Cairo and paying for their accommodations in Cairo.
“They’re being told, on the one hand, ‘You gotta get out of Egypt within 72 hours,’ and on the other hand, ‘Go buy a ticket,’ ” Cohn said. “I know that $1,500 is the going rate, approximately, for a flight from Cairo to Vancouver.”
Parents, siblings left behind
Currently, close relatives like parents and siblings of Canadian citizens and permanent residents are not eligible for evacuation from Gaza. GAC says these rules are part of federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations.
These eligibility requirements have led to Canadians and permanent residents at the Rafah border crossing having to make impossible choices to leave relatives behind in a region where even hospitals are besieged by gunfire.
Mohammed Sharif Alghusain, a Canadian in Gaza, was one of the first to evacuate with his wife and two daughters last week, but he also had to leave his parents and sister behind.
Alghusain and his immediate family are now in Canada. He told Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday that the family made the decision to leave because his seven-year-old daughter has diabetes and her life was at risk.
“I’m saving my daughters, but I’m leaving my parents behind,” Alghusain said. “They’re old and they need my help … it’s the worst decision anyone can take.”
Alghusain said he talked to multiple Canadian officials to try to get his parents out of Gaza, but got nowhere.
Cohn said his client and the client’s wife have parents and relatives in Gaza who are not eligible to leave the war-torn region. Cohn said he has talked to several Palestinian-Canadians who are also trying to get their relatives out of Gaza.
In a Nov. 7 interview with CBC, Canadian Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen said, “there’s always reflections on what more we can do,” when asked about whether Canada should allow parents and siblings of Canadians and permanent residents on the evacuation list.
“Adding them on the list … that means saving their lives,” Alghusain said. “It’s as simple as that.”