Immigration lawyers are disappointed with the federal government’s slow response in providing aid and creating programs for Turkish and Syrian refugees who are fleeing the devastating effects of two earthquakes that struck earlier this year, and say the disasters highlight a need to better prepare for the impacts of future crises.

On February 6, the first catastrophic earthquake hit southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria. The second earthquake hit the same area two weeks later.

As of March, over 50,000 deaths were confirmed as a result of the earthquakes. 2.6 million people are seeking shelter in tents and temporary shelters in Turkey, and in Syria approximately five million people may have been made homeless in February. More than 850,000 children were displaced by the earthquake.

As well, approximately 272,860 buildings in Turkey have either collapsed, been severely damaged or are facing demolition. The preliminary estimated total cost of the destruction in Turkey stands at US$103.6 billion, equivalent to nine percent of that country's forecast GDP for 2023. The earthquake also disrupted production of key commodities and trade in the region, with many factories and farms struggling to keep up with demand.

In February, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Minister Sean Fraser announced that his ministry was “giving priority to affected individuals for temporary, PR (permanent residency) & refugee applications. We’re monitoring the situation and will adjust our approach accordingly.”

In March, the ministry also announced measures to make it easier for Turkish and Syrian nationals already in Canada on a temporary basis to extend their stay.

At the time of the announcements, nearly 16,000 Turkish and Syrian applications were already in the immigration system, and of those approximately 1,700 were from people within the earthquake zone.

Even before the earthquakes, IRCC was experiencing well-documented capacity issues and continues to grapple with a backlog of applications. In November, approximately 2.1 million applications were in the system, more than half of which were in the backlog.

Back in early 2022, Fraser attributed system backlogs to increased immigration applications and COVID-19 travel restrictions. Further delays continue in part due to additional factors like office closures and labour disruptions.

In February, Syrian-Canadian Amal Shwikh told CTV News after the earthquake that she was waiting for IRCC to issue travel documents to her sister in Turkey, who she applied to sponsor in 2021. Her sister eventually made it to Canada in March.

In February, Kate Sircom, the chair of the Wolfville Refugee Support Network, told CBC that her organization was trying to help a Syrian woman, who arrived in Canada in 2017, get the rest of her family to Canada. The organization was able to bring her mother to Nova Scotia, but her brother’s application was still pending when the earthquakes hit.

Canada’s Immigration Plan

Broadly, the federal government is planning to significantly increase the number of immigrants entering Canada over the next few years. In its “2023–2025 Immigration Levels Plan,” IRCC said it aimed to welcome a total of 500,000 new permanent residents to Canada by 2025.

Maureen Silcoff, a Toronto-based refugee and immigration lawyer and former president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL), told The Maple these targets for the next few years are quite ambitious, and that the ministry needs to be better prepared to handle international crises alongside those targets.

“I think right now the department needs tools that could move cases forward in a more expeditious way generally, and also has to be able to meet any given crisis at the moment,” Silcoff explained.

Aidan Simardone, also a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, told The Maple that systemic racism may also be a factor underlying the delays for certain applicants, noting that the federal government has shown in its handling of Ukrainian refugees that it is capable of quickly adjusting immigration standards during international crises.

The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) program, which provides temporary status to Ukrainians who are fleeing Russia’s invasion, is one example of Canada being flexible during international emergencies. But the relative success of this program has not been replicated to accommodate those fleeing dangerous situations in other embattled countries, like Afghanistan.

With 2.6 million registered as refugees, Afghans make up the third-largest refugee group in the world after Syrian refugees and displaced Venezuelans. Despite this, Afghan immigration rates to Canada remain comparatively low.

After Taliban forces captured Kabul in 2021, Canada promised to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees. According to IRCC, 30,455 have been welcomed to Canada so far. By comparison, Canada has approved 665,777 Ukrainian applications out of 995,453 received in the past year.

Challenges faced by individual Afghan applicants have been the subject of several recent news stories.

As reported by CBC last month, immigration lawyer Andrew Koltun was working to settle an Afghan human rights activist until a minor issue with the sponsor’s email address caused a complication with the application, which could take more than five years to process. Koltun also noted that a significant amount of IRCC resources were shifted away from Afghans to assist people coming from Ukraine.

“Whose lives ‘matter’ is structured by white supremacy,” said Simardone.

Also in March, a powerful earthquake rattled northern Afghanistan, less than a year after a 6.2 magnitude earthquake in eastern Afghanistan killed more than 1,000 people. The Canadian government has so far announced no changes to their Afghanistan resettlement programs to account for this latest disaster.

Natural disasters can exacerbate existing social crises and existing forms of oppression, Simardone explained. The earthquakes struck the Turkish-Syrian border, a region that hosts large numbers of internally displaced people and rebel fighters, adding to an already difficult situation.

As of this year, 15.3 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid as a result of 10 years of ongoing conflicts and their lasting impacts, such as large-scale internal and cross-border displacement, widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and significant violations of international humanitarian law.

Earthquakes also offer a grim taste of the effects of disasters that are likely to become increasingly common as a result of climate change. According to a 2021 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, climate change disproportionately impacts “underserved communities who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts.”

Silcoff believes now is the time for Canada to consider policies to help refugees who are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate disasters.

The United Nations Refugees Convention does not necessarily account for climate change situations when it defines what constitutes a refugee. The convention defines a refugee as someone who:

"...owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of (their) nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail (themselves) of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of (their) former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

This definition is the basis of many countries’ refugee policies and laws, which explains why Canada has been ill-prepared to welcome migrants fleeing natural disasters.

Silcoff explained that Canada should look to the future and prepare pilot projects, since this country will likely receive more people fleeing the impacts of climate change.

“It’s a good time to pause for a moment and figure out how Canada could meet its domestic and international legal obligations to assist people who would face climate harm,” she said.

Ashlynn Chand is a freelance writer based in Amiskwaciwâskahikan/Edmonton. She has written for Ricochet, The Toronto Star, The Tyee, Jacobin, This Magazine, and more.

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