Frustration is mounting in Ottawa’s Haitian-Canadian community as efforts to bring relatives out of the devastated country are stalled by red tape.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, the Harper government announced plans to fast-track an estimated 5,000 applications to reunite families in Canada with relatives “directly and significantly affected by the earthquake in Haiti.”
Before the earthquake, someone seeking to be reunited with family in Canada would have to apply from outside the country. That rule has been relaxed for Haitians, enabling applicants to come to Canada on temporary visas while their applications for permanent residency status are processed. So far, 1,600 temporary residency permits have been issued to Haitians since the earthquake, Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Melanie Carkner said. “It means they’re here in a safe country, reunited with their family and they can apply for a temporary work permit, health coverage and other benefits.”
Another 205 permanent resident visas also have been issued. Thousands more files — Carkner couldn’t say how many — remain unresolved.
“We have staff working around the clock to get these applications done as quickly as possible,” Carkner said. “They’re working under extreme circumstances. I think they’re doing a great job.”
Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger says he met with immigration officials on Jan. 24 to pass along information about 39 applications for family reunification already filed by his constituents.
“All the cases involve people who have been affected by the earthquake,” Bélanger said. “They all, as far as we understand, fit the criteria for family reunification perfectly. None of them have been resolved.”
Bélanger said he had been reluctant to criticize the department, knowing what a monumental task it was to process thousands of new applications. After the earthquake, the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince was unable to function properly, files were damaged and communication was difficult. As a result, immigration officials have set up a unit in Ottawa to handle requests from Haiti.
“Initially we could understand,” said Bélanger, who represents Ottawa-Vanier, which has a sizable Haitian-Canadian population. “Now we’re two and a half months later, and I would hope we’d have seen more action than we’re seeing now.”
Bélanger said his office informed immigration officials of another 17 cases that didn’t necessarily meet the definition of family reunification: for example, the person being sponsored was too old, or is a cousin, not a sibling or parent. Those cases have seen no reply, either.
“What I’m hearing is people have seen no progress,” said Rachel Décoste, a public servant and communications director for the local Haiti En Fête festival. “We’re hearing that, for some people who have already been waiting for years, and they fit the criteria, the quake hasn’t sped that up. And those who are asking for family reunification for the first time have been asked for lots of documentation, the birth certificate, the marriage certificate, which may be buried in the house they don’t have anymore.”
Décoste said she heard of one situation where an application was denied because the person being sponsored was a cousin, which is not allowed under the rules. “But the cousin is an orphan, with no family left,” Décoste said.
For people struggling to keep their children fed, being asked to find an approved doctor to do a medical examination, or to get their relatives in Canada to pay hundreds of dollars in application fees, doesn’t seem reasonable, said Décoste, an Orléans resident.
“I definitely thought things would move faster, but it feels like Canada is dragging its feet, especially when you hear how things are moving in other parts of the world.”
Bélanger said he found it frustrating that across the Ottawa River, the Quebec government had indicated it would interpret the rules with more flexibility to enable more people to complete sponsorships.
“We’ve got a situation in Ottawa where some people are considering moving to Gatineau just so they can get their family out safely,” Bélanger said. “I had hoped the (federal) government would be more flexible.”
The relaxed process for family reunification doesn’t help the 8,000 Haitian refugees in Canada awaiting decisions on their status. They aren’t allowed to apply for family reunification, no matter how dire the situation for their relatives back home. Only permanent residents or Canadian citizens may sponsor family members for reunification.
“You might have been here for years, waiting for a decision, and there’s nothing you can do even though you’ve got a child in a bad situation in Haiti,” said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “I think many Haitians have been somewhat cautious. They’re trying to keep up their hopes and perhaps hesitating to be publicly critical because they think, ‘Maybe next week, our children are going to arrive.'”
“I think Canadians are not aware of the decision the government has been making: bringing orphans to be adopted quickly, but not bringing the children who have biological parents in Canada, even ones who are living in the streets.”
With the rainy season at hand and so many Haitian families continuing to live on the streets, Bélanger said, “let’s get serious. We had a window here, and it’s rapidly going to close.”