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Immigration minister 'pissed off' that Canadians' families blocked from leaving Gaza

OTTAWA — Canada's immigration minister is "pissed off" that a list of people related to Canadians are being blocked from leaving the embattled Gaza Strip, he said Wednesday.

Ottawa started accepting applications last month to reunite as many as 1,000 people in the Palestinian territory with extended family members in Canada.

Canada provided an initial list of pre-approved people to Israel and Egypt, who jointly control the only border crossing out of Gaza.

"Perhaps there is some trepidation by people on the ground as to whether to let these folks out, but it's a humanitarian gesture and it's immensely frustrating for me," Immigration Minister Marc Miller said on Parliament Hill.

Miller previously said he's willing to be flexible on the number of people who can access the program.

But he said in the House of Commons on Tuesday that it is "very difficult" to expand the program if nobody can get across the border.

The minister said he is looking at diplomatic options and wants to explore them before he says more publicly.

"I don't want to create a system that's entertaining false hope, but I also don't want to drop my arms and not try," said Miller.

"It's really frustrating, and obviously it's a matter of life and death for the families in question."

If people on the government's list are able to make it across the border, they will still need to be screened before they are allowed to board a flight to Canada.

Miller's office would not say when the list was provided to officials or how many names are on it.

The Gaza Strip has been under near-constant bombardment since the latest Israel-Hamas conflict began in early October, and humanitarian supplies have been severely limited.

Officials in the Hamas-controlled territory say more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past four months.

Israel declared war on Hamas after its militants stormed into the country on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking roughly 250 hostage.

Nearly 85 per cent of the Gaza Strip's population has been displaced during the conflict, with a huge number of people now crowding the area just outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

More than one million people have crammed into Rafah and the surrounding areas after Israel ordered civilians to seek refuge there.

Foreign nationals, including Canadians, have been able to leave the besieged territory by way of that tightly controlled border crossing.

But the path is more difficult for Palestinians who hold no foreign citizenships.

Since the war began, Egypt has pushed back hard against calls that it take in a mass exodus of Palestinians.

It fears Israel won’t allow them to return to Gaza and says it doesn’t want to abet ethnic cleansing.

It has also warned that militants from Gaza could enter the Sinai with those fleeing, bringing the potential for cross-border exchanges with Israel.

— With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press