The House

No refuge in the time of COVID: Iraqi family waits for Canada to reschedule asylum interview

If one thing has become clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that there's no refuge from the virus in Canada or around the world — and that includes those who are trying to find safety in this country as refugees. 

Ali Wada has been trying to sponsor his sister's family caught in bureaucratic limbo in Turkey

Ali Wada, his wife, and two children pictured in 2019. Wada said it's been hard to focus on his family here in Canada given the uncertainty of his sister's plight in Turkey. (Submitted by the Wada family)

If one thing has become clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that there's no refuge from the virus in Canada or internationally —  including for people trying to find safety in this country as refugees. 

As COVID-19 shut down economies and closed borders, it also left many people fleeing persecution and death with nowhere to go. That includes the family of Ali Wada, who's trying to sponsor his sister, Nadheerah, and her family who are caught in a bureaucratic limbo in Turkey. 

A resident of Kitchener, Ont., Wada is a former refugee himself. He arrived in Canada from Iraq in 1991 and now works as a manager at a manufacturing facility in Guelph, Ont.

His family is trying to make the same journey now, but they're unable to come to Canada, unwanted in Turkey and unwilling to face the dangers of returning home.

"They don't feel welcome in Turkey because they want to deport them," Wada told CBC's The House. "They are sitting in fear because they're not sure if they're going to leave Turkey or if they're going to come here. There's nothing known and they are in constant worry that they have to go back to Iraq."

Wada said his sister's family fled to Turkey from Iraq after one of her sons was killed in a car bombing in 2011 and another was targeted in a different attack later that year. 

Her family has been designated as refugees by the United Nations, and Wada's application to sponsor them was accepted in 2019. But a scheduled interview with Canadian embassy officials in Turkey was cancelled last March at the onset of the pandemic.

Ten months later, they're still waiting for an appointment.

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino says the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced obstacles to Canada's refugee resettlement efforts — but the country is still committed to its status as a world leader in welcoming those fleeing persecution. Note: In this interview, the minister stated that Canada took in one third of refugees resettled by the UNHCR in 2020. In fact, Canada took in about 15 per cent refugees the agency resettled last year. 14:17

Stuck in limbo in Turkey

Two weeks ago, Turkish officials gave them 30 days to leave the country.

"So we have pretty much around 14 days left. I'm in the process of trying to hire a lawyer to appeal that decision. Hopefully, it'll buy some time for the Canadian embassy to call them for the interview and start the process," Wada said. 

Canada remains at the top of the list of countries accepting refugees. Even so, this country took in far fewer refugees in 2020 — about 9,000, compared to just over 30,000 the year before. 

The federal minister in charge of the refugees file said he understands the plight faced by people who are seeking safety away from home. 

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino takes part in a press conference during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on June 8, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"There's no doubt that COVID-19 certainly disrupted everyone's way of life and that is equally true of the government," Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino told The House in a separate interview.

"We have continued to bring those who are in the kind of dire circumstances that we heard by Ali Wada. And we are working with the local MP on that case, too."

Mendicino said his department is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) to identify the most urgent cases.

But he said that even though Wada's family had an interview scheduled before the pandemic, that doesn't mean they will be first in line. 

"In the case of interviews that are being conducted abroad, we are also at the mercy of the decision of the sovereign countries in which our offices are located. And so we have to work very closely with partners when they are taking decisions to reduce the spread of the virus," he said. 

"But there's no question that in any case where life hangs in the balance, that's where we are putting as much priority as we can on them because we do want to show compassion and we do want to show leadership. We know this is about providing a safe sanctuary to the world's most vulnerable."

COVID-19 slows down application process

According to the UNCHR, fewer than 23,000 refugees were resettled across the globe by the agency last year. The number is the lowest the organization has seen in nearly two decades. 

Canada took in about 9,000 refugees in 2020 through the country's three resettlement streams.  

The UNHCR said an estimated 1.4 million refugees are in urgent need of resettlement.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said the number of refugees resettled internationally last year was the lowest the organization has seen in nearly two decades.  (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the continuing impact of COVID-19 means applications can't be processed normally or within the usual time frames.

Still, Mendicino said Canada plans to resettle 30,000 refugees this year.  

"We're confident because we have gone more digital. We are taking applications online. We are also finding ways to work around the disruption that has been caused by the pandemic," the minister said.

In an effort to move his family's case along, Ali Wada said he's enlisted the help of his local MP, Liberal Tim Louis. But his own attempts to contact the Canadian embassy in Ankara remain unsuccessful.

"Every time I contact the embassy through email, I get an automatic email saying due to COVID, we have a limited access to files."

In the meantime, Wada said his sister is ill, and she's undergone two operations. He's been forced to take some of the money he'd set aside for when they arrived in Canada to pay for what they need in Turkey. 

"I started ... taking from that pot to help them because of all this unexpected delay. So that money that should be spent when they come here to support them; now, I am sending it there to Turkey to survive."

Money, of course, is not his main concern. Or the message he wants Canadian officials to hear. He wants them to know what he saw the last time he visited his sister in Turkey. 

"I saw her health is deteriorating while sitting there, especially with all the stress. So I'm asking them if they can have some compassion to speed up the process of the interview so they can get here quick as possible."

As quickly as possible, because their time in Turkey is rapidly running out.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated from a previous version which erroneously stated that Canada took in one-third of refugees resettled by the UNHCR in 2020, based on information provided by Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in an interview with The House. In fact, Canada took in about 15 per cent of refugees resettled by the agency last year.
    Feb 01, 2021 7:41 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

With files from Raisa Patel

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