Why one refugee has spent six months waiting for Canada to OK his trip to see his wife and children
Egyptian refugee Hamada Abdelsalam has been saving every penny he can from his job as a deliveryman and Uber driver, sometimes even skimping on food, so he can reunite with his wife and three kids.
He hasn’t 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 waiting for his permanent residence to bring the family over.
Abdelsalam’s only option for now is to meet them in a third country, but he must first get a refugee travel document from Ottawa.
Last November, Abdelsalam applied for a one-time refugee travel document to meet with his wife and children in Germany. Today, after six months — and losing $2,000 on the deposits and fees for his plane tickets, he’s still without the needed document to see his family.
“I miss my wife and children dearly. I’m not travelling for fun. It is just basic humanity to be allowed to see your family,” says the 37-year-old Ottawa man, who also studies IT at Algonquin College full time.
“This is a huge disappointment. I feel I’m being held hostage on this land.”
Since the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020, Canada has stopped issuing refugee travel documents under the passport program except for urgent travel. Even with the so-called “urgent cases,” critics say, immigration officials are so slow to respond that it’s useless if someone actually had an urgent need to travel.
Now, with the easing of public health restrictions, advocates for refugees say it’s time for Canada to resume routine travel document services for refugees.
“They have just never reinstated the general right to apply for a refugee travel document in non-urgent situations,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“It seems like a general tendency of the government to shut down things due to the pandemic and then restart most things as we supposedly get back to normal. But not things for refugees. It reflects as usual the low priority given to refugees.”
Immigration officials said the public health and safety measures in response to COVID-19 have greatly reduced the government capacity to process passport and travel document applications.
“The passport program has had to focus on serving clients with a valid need for urgent travel, including medical and humanitarian reasons, serious illness or death, financial hardship or to support an essential service,” says immigration department spokesperson Jelena Jenko.
Jenko did not respond to questions about officials’ slow response to urgent cases and when the department would fully resume the routine issuance of refugee travel documents.
One of immigration lawyer Jacqueline Bonisteel’s clients applied in February for a refugee travel document to visit his mother, who was facing a life-threatening heart surgery in Egypt. The plan was for him to bring his four children to see their grandmother for this one time in case she didn’t make it.
“This may be the last chance for the family to have the reunion that they have longed for over the course of many years. (He) is desperate to see his mother … and, if the worst happens, to say his final goodbyes in-person,” said a letter accompanying his travel document application.
To date, the 43-year-old Libyan man, who had his asylum granted in October, has yet to get an acknowledgement of his application. Fortunately, his mother’s operation was successful and she has since returned to Libya after spending three weeks recovering in Egypt.
“Frankly, I don’t see the ongoing reason for this. At the very least, I can understand that these applications may take time to process. But they put in this procedure to request urgent processing when you need it,” said Bonisteel. “At the very least, that should be functioning and it doesn’t appear to be.”
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