OTTAWA — The federal government is considering ways to bring the extended family members of Canadians out of Gaza, but the tightly controlled border crossing into Egypt remains a major obstacle, Canada's immigration minister said Tuesday.
This week marks the second month of a brutal conflict that has killed thousands of civilians, including the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants and Israel's swift and sustained retaliatory war in the Gaza Strip.
Most Canadians with extended family members in the Palestinian territory have been told any relatives beyond their spouses and children do not qualify to come to Canada, leaving them unable to bring their loved ones to safety.
New Democrat members of Parliament wrote an open letter to the federal government asking for special immigration visas that would allow Canadians to get their parents, siblings and adult children out of the besieged territory.
Immigration Minister Marc Miller said the government is looking at options, but the challenge is actually getting people out of Gaza.
"You can you can write as many policies as you want on the side of a desk in Canada, the reality on the ground is something that's much different," Miller said Tuesday morning on his way into a Liberal cabinet meeting.
The only viable crossing out of Gaza is the tightly controlled Rafah border with Egypt, and Canada has no influence over who can get out on a day-to-day basis.
Canada has provided a list of names to Israel and Egypt as part of a process that is mediated by Qatar.
Sometimes Canada's view of who should be able to leave Gaza doesn't line up with the decision makers at the border, Miller said.
Approximately 600 people on Canada's list have escaped Hamas-controlled Gaza through the border crossing since the conflict began.
The war has killed more than 15,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis and displaced over three-fourths of Gaza's 2.3 million residents, who have lived with scarce access to food, water and electricity for two months.
After a brief one-week truce in November, people in Gaza are running out of safe places as Israel's military pushed south in its pursuit of wiping out Hamas, which Canada considers a terrorist organization.
Nesma Alafifi's extended family of 35 people has been sheltering together in a two-bedroom apartment without power, blankets or mattresses. Her father, stepmother, 12-year-old brother and adult siblings and their families fled to the southernmost part of the territory, and have nowhere left to go.
The woman from Stouffville, Ont., said that since the latest Israel-Hamas war began, her family has sometimes gone days without a meal. When they do have food, they cook on an open fire.
Her father ran out of his daily medication two weeks ago.
"I really want them to be safe, and I really want them to be out of Gaza," Alafifi said, pleading for Canada to do what it can to save her family.
"We are turning to our country."
She has seen countries such as Australia offering temporary visas to Palestinians trapped in Gaza and feels it should not be difficult for Canada to extend similar assistance.
"The definition of family includes parents, siblings. It's not a complicated issue," she said.
Australia has faced similar struggles to get people across the border.
Officially, Canada's policy for who can be evacuated from Gaza is restricted to citizens, permanent residents, and their children and spouses.
But Miller said he's urged the department to be flexible.
"We do need to continue to remain flexible and continue to advocate for family configurations that are a little different than than a nuclear family," Miller said.
For now, the government is focused on getting Canadians out of Gaza, and said he's looking at other options for the future.
Alafifi says there isn't time to wait.
"A minute makes a difference in Gaza," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press