The catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake that slammed southwestern Asia is adding to the misery of Syrian refugees who fled to Turkiye to escape civil war.
There are more than 3.5 million registered refugees in Turkiye, many of whom live along the border straddling Turkiye and Syria near the epicentre of Monday’s quake, which has decimated the region.
From her apartment in Mississauga, Ont., Syrian-Canadian Amal Shwikh constantly checks her phone for WhatsApp messages from her older sister Zahra. On Monday, the seven-storey building where Zahra lived with other refugees in Urfa, Turkiye, cracked then crumbled.
For the past few days, her 47 year-old sister has been taking shelter in a stranger’s car.
“(Zahra) is doing bad. Scared because (her) house going down and she don’t have nothing,” said Shwikh in an interview with CTV National News.
“It was very cold, with rain and snow and she slept in a car. Maybe she will move to a (refugee) camp,” she added, when asked about her sister’s living conditions.
Frustration with Canada’s immigration system is compounding Shwikh’s concerns. She applied to sponsor her sister under the family reunification category in 2021. Shwikh says Zahra had already completed her security and medical checks in July of last year and was waiting for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to issue travel documents when the earthquake struck. Shwikh wants IRCC to issue the travel permits now, so her sister can get to Canada.
“I can pay the ticket for the flight… I just want (Zahra) to come here – to be safe.”
UNKNOWN IF APPLICANTS WERE INJURED OR DIED
On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said that the government is discussing the possibility of fast-tracking permanent resident applications from both Syrians and Turks caught in the earthquake zone.
“This is a conversation that we’re having,” Fraser told reporters on his way into a caucus meeting. “We’re trying to understand what the impact is on the clients who are in the system.”
In an email statement to CTV News, IRCC says processing times have not been impacted by the earthquake. CTV News asked how many immigration applications were being processed through the Canadian Embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, but IRCC was unable to provide that number.
Currently the only existing immigration pathways for those who qualify in the region are through family reunification and parent or grandparent super visa applications, IRCC said.
It’s possible those applicants may have been injured or even died in the earthquake zone.
SURVIVOR’S ‘GUILT’ IN CANADA
The promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 was a key plank of the Liberal party’s platform in that year’s election and arguably helped them sweep to power.
At the time, photos of a two-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed ashore alongside his older brother and their mother in Turkiye dominated headlines. The boy’s aunt, Tima Kurdi, who lives in B.C. told CTV News in 2020 that seeing the images “is not easy” but that “if it brings a positive effect and it’s going to help other peoples’ lives, we are honoured.”
In the more than seven years since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first planeload of families, IRCC says more than 80,000 Syrians have settled in Canada.
Manar Chabouq was granted asylum in 2018. After finding a home in Toronto she started volunteering with the White Helmets, the team of rescuers dedicated to salvaging lives after bombings in northern Syria during the country’s civil war. The White Helmets are now picking through the remnants of a natural disaster searching for survivors. Since the disaster struck, Chabouq has spent many hours on WhatsApp trying to connect Syrian-Canadians with relatives in the quake zone.
Chabouq is pleading for the Canadian government not just to fast-track the processing of existing immigration applications, but to reduce the financial requirements so more Syrians can sponsor loved ones.
“There is war and now there is the violence of this earthquake. I appeal to the Canadian government to open the doors for sponsors,” said Chabouq as she choked back tears during a Zoom interview.
According to cost guidelines put out by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, sponsoring a family of four requires at least $28,700 of income support.
Chabouq says that amount is too high for refugees who need to rebuild their lives here before they can redirect funds to sponsoring relatives.
“We want to bring our family here – so you know your mom is safe, your brother is safe, your nephew is safe. How can we eat healthy food and have electricity and heat and know that our family is suffering?” asks Chabouq. “We have survivor’s guilt.”
WILL CANADA ACCEPT CLIMATE REFUGEES?
Canada usually only accepts refugees fleeing conflict, but it has in the past provided a path for refugees fleeing natural disasters.
In 2010, the federal Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper accepted applications from Haitians impacted by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Thousands of permanent resident applications and temporary visas were issued within a period of six weeks.
But Ottawa immigration lawyer Warren Creates is sceptical that will happen in the current political and economic climate. Creates says the 2010 measures were driven by a large and politically-connected group of Haitian-Canadians, concentrated mainly in Quebec. He doesn’t think Syrians can exert the same type of political pressure.
“It’s hard to provide an immigration solution to every disaster,” said Creates, who has been in practice for 35 years. He says it will also be difficult to fast track applications given the current backlog in the system that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Creates calls IRCC “overstretched” and says it doesn’t have enough staff to handle existing commitments.
He points out that training a VISA officer to assess an application takes at least a year.
“If you add capacity for this particular humanitarian disaster, you need to take it from some other place. That’s not really fair to the others who are coming from Ukraine or Afghanistan,” said Creates.
IS THERE POLITICAL WILL TO HELP?
University of Ottawa immigration law professor Jamie Liew says bringing earthquake survivors from Turkiye and Syria to Canada through immigration measures will require “political will.”
“When push comes to shove Canada is capable of shifting resources,” said Liew. She highlights the fact that in 2015, the government brought back retired VISA officers to process claims. Liew says that staff can also be diverted from other departments and the application process can be streamlined to cut red tape.
And when it comes to helping new Syrians ravaged by the quake, Liew says the government can leverage the experience of past sponsorship groups who already know what it takes to settle refugees successfully.
”The Canadian government can use this opportunity to reignite the resettlement infrastructure that’s already there. People have the know-how of organizing teams of volunteers,” said Liew.
As for Shwikh, she already has the supports in place to help her sister Zahra start a life in Canada. Shwikh is a single mother with five children under the age of 11 years old. Her family was among the first wave of government-sponsored Syrian refugees who arrived in 2015.
Since then, Shwikh has learned English, found work as a dental assistant and become a Canadian citizen. She has also saved the required funds to support her sister for a year.
“Canada helped me. Now I can help her,” she said. All Shwikh needs now are travel documents for her sister – a way out of the quake zone only the federal government can provide.