Egyptian refugee Hamada Abdelsalam has saved every penny he can from his job as a delivery boy and Uber driver, sometimes even skimping on food, so he can be reunited with his wife and three children.
He has not seen them since he fled Cairo in June 2019 to seek political asylum in Canada. He was granted refugee status a year later and is awaiting permanent residency to bring his family.
Abdelsalam’s only option for now is to meet them in a third country, but he must first obtain a refugee travel document from Ottawa.
Last November, Abdelsalam applied for a single refugee travel document to meet his wife and children in Germany. Today, after six months – and losing $2,000 on deposits and airfare fees – he still doesn’t have the document needed to see his family.
“I miss my wife and children very much. I do not travel for pleasure. It’s just basic humanity to be allowed to see your family,” says the 37-year-old Ottawa man, who is also studying computer science at Algonquin College full-time.
“It’s a huge disappointment. I feel like I’m being held hostage on this earth.
Since the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020, Canada has stopped issuing refugee travel documents under the passport program except for emergency travel. Even with so-called ’emergency cases’, critics say immigration officials are so slow to respond that it’s no use if someone actually had an urgent need to travel.
Now, with public health restrictions easing, refugee advocates say it’s time for Canada to resume routine travel document services for refugees.
“They just never restored the general right to apply for a refugee travel document in non-emergency situations,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“It seems to be a general government trend of shutting things down due to the pandemic and then restarting most things as we supposedly return to normal. But not things for refugees. This reflects, as usual, the low priority given to refugees.
Immigration officials said public health and safety measures in response to COVID-19 have significantly reduced the government’s ability to process passport and travel document applications.
“The passport program had to focus on customers with a valid need for urgent travel, including medical and humanitarian reasons, serious illness or death, financial hardship or to support an essential service,” the door said. -Spokesman of the Ministry of Immigration, Jelena Jenko.
Jenko did not respond to questions about officials’ slow responses to urgent cases and when the department would fully resume routine issuance of refugee travel documents.
One of immigration lawyer Jacqueline Bonisteel’s clients applied for a refugee travel document in February to visit her mother, who was facing life-threatening heart surgery in Egypt. The plan was for him to bring his four children to see their grandmother this time in case she didn’t make it.
“This may be the last chance for the family to have the reunion they have longed for for many years. (He) desperately needs to see his mother…and, if the worst happens, to say his last goodbyes in person,” reads a letter accompanying his travel document application.
To date, the 43-year-old Libyan, who was granted asylum in October, has still not received acknowledgment of receipt of his request. Fortunately, her mother’s surgery was successful and she has since returned to Libya after spending three weeks recovering in Egypt.
“Frankly, I don’t see the permanent reason for this. At the very least, I can understand that these requests can take time to process. But they have this procedure in place to request urgent treatment when you need it,” Bonisteel said. “At the very least it should work and it doesn’t seem to.”
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