Palestine protest, Ottawa Palestine protest, Ottawa. Photo: Tony Webster / CC BY 2.0

Western governments complicit in Gaza genocide must do more to bring Palestinians to safety, argues John Clarke

On 9 January, the Canadian government launched a visa programme that purported to offer Canadian citizens and permanent residents with extended family living in the Gaza Strip a means to bring them to safety. The venture has been, as the CBC puts it, ‘mired in setbacks and controversy since it opened.’ Indeed, the programme has failed so glaringly over such an extended period that it is impossible to regard it as a good faith exercise.

Last week, a shocking example of the programme’s screening process came to light. One applicant, a former medical worker in Gaza, was asked if he had ‘ever provided medical care to injured Hamas members’ and, if he had refused to do so, how he had been able to avoid consequences.

The immigration officer who posed this intrusive question by letter was either unaware or intentionally disregarded the fact that withholding medical treatment from an injured person violates the Geneva Convention. Moreover, the visa application process has been misused to gather intelligence around civil administration in Gaza.

Toronto immigration lawyer Kelly O’Connor reported gasping out loud when she saw this letter, but explained that it is part of a pattern of ‘very invasive questions’ she has repeatedly encountered that go ‘above and beyond what is asked in a normal immigration application.’


The stringency of this particular programme is certainly remarkable. ‘First, a relative in Canada must submit a ‘statutory declaration’ indicating the family members in Gaza for whom they are seeking visas, as well as voluminous details about each member, including a description of scars and markings on their bodies, and a list of all the jobs they have held since they were 16 years old.’

Once the declarations have been vetted, a ‘unique code’ is sent to the family members who must then ‘file a second batch of paperwork for a temporary visa.’ The next hurdle is for applicants to ‘somehow get from Gaza to the Canadian immigration office in Cairo, Egypt, to complete a final screening process.’ However, ‘Canada has been unable to work with Egypt or Israel to get applicants across the border. Those who have been granted visas have made it across themselves, often by paying thousands of dollars to a private company.

Such stringency would pose a major problem even for applicants living under relatively stable conditions but, for people who are enduring invasion and bombardment, the impact is considerably worse. Hagar Elsayed, an immigration lawyer working with some 35 clients trying to access the programme, pointed out that ‘I have clients whose whole home and neighbourhoods have been decimated … Obviously they don’t have access to any of the documents. Sometimes, they’re just fleeing with the clothes on their back.

This hugely restrictive exercise in gatekeeping has produced a situation where more ‘than 7,500 people submitted statutory declarations between Jan. 9 and April 1 … As of April 29, 179 people had been granted temporary visas.’ So glaringly insurmountable are the difficulties put in the way of applicants that it is easy to conclude that the programme was designed to fail.

The political motivations underpinning the design and operation of the programme are also abundantly clear. Days after it was adopted, the right-wing National Post reported that ‘a recently formed group called Lawyers for Secure Immigration wrote to the government this week warning that Hamas’s control of Gaza and the limited state capacity there pose security risks to Canada.’ In response, immigration officials made every effort to stress the strength of the screening process. ‘Only applicants who pass full biometric, security and admissibility screening will be allowed to travel onward to Canada,’ declared a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada.

Without in any way denying the horrible plight of Ukrainians or to question their right to seek safety in Canada, it is instructive to look at how the Trudeau government responded to the needs of Ukrainians endangered or displaced by the Russian invasion compared to Palestinians facing a genocidal Israeli assault in Gaza. Based on racist attitudes and dominant geopolitical interests, entirely different approaches have been taken.

In an article written for Canadian Dimension in January, Ken Theobold notes that there are nearly 50,000 Palestinians living in Canada and that many of them ‘have extended family members or friends currently trapped in Gaza.’ He suggests that ‘Palestinian-Canadians initially took encouragement from the support the Trudeau government offered to Ukrainians in 2022.’ Immediately after the Russian invasion ‘Trudeau announced a series of programs to help displaced Ukrainians and their families.’

The Canadian government made striking efforts to remove barriers that might impede Ukrainians seeking refuge. ‘They were offered extended, temporary status in Canada and the right to work, study and stay until it was safe for them to return home. There was no limit on their numbers. Eventually, over a million Ukrainians were offered visas, with no family connection to Canada required.’

In the case of Palestinians who wanted to escape Gaza, it took ‘months of pleas by Palestinian-Canadians and advocates’ before ‘Immigration Minister Marc Miller finally announced special immigration measures’ that were, as we have seen, almost impossible to access. The initiative, moreover, was capped at 1,000 applicants, limited to three-year visas and available only to those with family in Canada. With good reason, these measures were ‘quickly denounced as racist and a double standard by advocates.’

Duplicity and hypocrisy

One might ask why the Trudeau government bothered to establish a programme so ineffective that it has become a discredited farce. Certainly, the government wishes to give all possible support to Israel during its assault on Gaza and has no genuine desire to assist Palestinians seeking safety. However, the Liberal Party of Canada that Trudeau leads is mindful of its progressive credentials as a champion of ‘multiculturalism,’ as ill-deserved as these may be. With typical duplicity and hypocrisy, the Trudeau government wanted to cover its tracks with an empty gesture and the visa programme was the end result.

The Liberals have ducked and weaved in exactly the same way when it comes to demands for an arms embargo on Israel. Under pressure from the Palestine solidarity movement, communities in which they have an electoral base and even some of their own MPs, the Liberals have taken measures to limit weapons supplies to Israel that fall dramatically short, as I explained in a previous article for Counterfire.

It is highly unlikely, however, that the Trudeau government’s shabby antics around this programme will solve their political problems. With student encampments in solidarity with the Palestinian people springing up across the country, protests against the Gaza genocide continuing to take to the streets and Palestinians in Canada demanding the right to bring family members to safety, this farcical visa programme is quite indefensible.

As the ICC applies for arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant and the horrible carnage in Gaza continues unabated, we must demand a ceasefire and call for the measures that will create a sustainable living environment for those who are presently under siege. With 80% of the Palestinian people displaced and 50% of them forced to live outside of historic Palestine, it is monstrous that the Nakba is still continuing in 2024.

Despite this, the Western governments that have enabled this terrible crime against humanity have no right to lock the door when Palestinians seek refuge from the death and destruction that is being brought down upon them. The Trudeau government’s wholly inadequate visa programme must be replaced with effective measures that respond to the needs that have been created by the genocidal assault on Gaza.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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