Amitis Shojaei. Image: Provided

When she was five years old, Amitis Shojaei dictated a story to her mother, Fatemeh. A local newspaper published this tale illustrating how a mother’s love saved her daughter’s life: when the devil wounded the girl with a poisoned arrow of hatred, her mother hugged her and cried, and the mother’s tears brought the girl to life. 

Amitis, who lives in Iran, is now a 13-year-old with an extraordinary talent for stand-up comedy. She excels at theatre and singing, and has a knack for making short videos. But her creative drive has been subsumed in a cloud of depression because she has been separated from her Calgary-based mother for over 26 months. It could be another 39 months before her permanent residence (PR) application to come to Canada is processed.

The 26-month break in an incredibly strong mother-daughter bond has been devastating. Fatemeh, who for many understandable reasons is not sharing publicly why she had to come to Canada, suffers from severe depression due to the separation, as does Amitis, who also experiences lack of sleep, disinterest in play, and poor academic results. A November, 2019 psychiatric assessment that has been shared with Canadian officials indicates this young girl suffers greatly from anxiety and depression because of the separation from her mother, and while treatment is recommended, “it is highly recommended to change the conditions and make it possible for her to enjoy physical and emotional presence of her mother.” 

In addition to the pain of being separated from her mother and experiencing daily what it means to be a second class citizen as a girl in Iran, the conditions in Amitis’ community (where she survives with her aunt) are severe. They include a lack of electricity, which means no air conditioning when daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius, food and medicine shortages, and strict water rationing. Amitis is also at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, given the regime’s decision not to impose strict public health measures (arguing that the economy must remain open to counteract the devastating impact of ongoing economic sanctions). 

Amitis currently has an application in to the Canadian government for a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP), which upon approval would allow her to be reunited with her mother while her Permanent Residence application is processed. But getting that approval could prove a long and difficult journey, a challenge shared by millions of immigrants and refugees in Canada who suffer long-term separation because of Ottawa’s failure to provide the necessary resources to address a staggering backlog of applications.

Political considerations determine eligibility

Perhaps because many of these separated families cannot vote, it’s an issue rarely addressed on the federal campaign trail. According to figures obtained by the Toronto Star, as of early July, there were 375,137 permanent residence applications awaiting processing, along with 702,660 temporary residence hopefuls. Behind each of these million-plus applications is a story filled with the pain and trauma of separation experienced by Amitis and Fatemah. But based on their platforms, none of the major political parties appears prepared to seriously address what is in many ways a crisis induced by bureaucratic complacency and, in no small part, racism.

What harm, family reunification advocates rightfully ask, would there be in bringing over separated family members as soon as mothers or fathers in Canada have refugee status?  Why do we punish people who have been accepted for asylum — and therefore clearly cannot go back to the country from which they fled — with endless reunification delays that exacerbate the stress, fear, and anxiety already suffered by individuals who have survived persecution, torture, difficult journeys, and getting established in a nation that constantly throws barriers in their way?

Part of the answer is purely political. Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Marco Mendicino has significant discretion to issue TRPs to immediately reunite many of these families. But it’s a discretion he tends to use only after a family has gone through the trauma of sharing their story publicly, pushing petitions, hoisting picket signs, and engaging in incessant lobbying. Indeed, it appears that IRCC exercises its own cynical calculus in deciding whether to show humanitarian compassion, weighing the effects of negative publicity and public outrage in coming to a conclusion about approving some of these permits.

This was clear in the case of Ottawa Palestinian refugee Jihan Qunoo, who fled Gaza in 2019 and, desperate to see her three daughters after two years of separation, applied last February for visitor visas so they could spend the summer with her. They were turned down. Qunoo then took her family reunification plea to the airwaves during the May bombing of Gaza, sharing harrowing images of her girls screaming from the ear-shattering explosions and concussive effects of a direct hit on the building next door to their apartment, killing twelve neighbours.

With the assistance of the Rural Refugee Rights Network, which organized a national campaign, a petition with over 25,000 signatures, and days’ worth of lobbying and public demonstrations, Qunoo won early admission temporary resident permits (TRPs) to bring her husband and children to safety in Canada. Those permits were approved 13 days after she submitted her application. There was only one difference between the rejection in February and the happy reunion in June: public exposure and pressure.

While Qunoo’s story is a happy one — her girls started school in Ottawa last week and they can now walk home free from the worry that drones might fire missiles at them — her case is emblematic of a critical systemic problem.

Indeed, it is only a massive effort that tends to produce such an individual success. While the major federal parties recognize the problem, they are at best vague on solutions and, at worst, seeing a privatization opportunity to exploit incredibly vulnerable people.

Liberals favour business class

Employing their favourite phrase, the Liberals claim they have “worked hard” on family reunification but blame the backlog on Stephen Harper, who left office in 2015. They promise to reduce processing time to one year or less (still too long, and a goal they will inevitably fail to achieve) and to also implement a program (for which no details are provided) that would provide visas to allow spouses and children to reunite while awaiting processing.  

Trudeau’s promise to bring up to 40,000 Afghans to Canada sounds hopeful (and feels akin to his promise to bring 35,000 Syrian refugees in 2015), but advocates are furious that there has yet to be any clarity about how those desperate to escape the Taliban can get here.

Calls to the special Afghanistan hotline produce a wide range of advice for asylum seekers, but no practical results. Those fleeing can see online which program they are eligible for, but there remain no details on how they can apply.

Ultimately, the Liberals promise to continue a long-standing trend of privileging business-class immigrants over family reunification. Refugee rights lawyer and advocate Sharry Aiken points out:

“About 40 per cent of the overall immigration intake came from the family class in the early 1990s. Since 2000, they’ve been making up just over 20 per cent because the government has put more emphasis on economic-class immigrants.”

That is unlikely to change under a re-elected Liberal government. Whereas they dangle a 12-month waiting time for families desperate to hug loved ones, you can get here in two weeks under the Global Talent Stream, where a $1,000 application fee and a job offer with an $80,000 annual base salary will make you a Canadian resident in no time. For many refugees, however, running from bombs and trying to escape torture chambers leaves little time to burnish their high-tech job resumes.

While Trudeau praises his immigration program for human rights defenders, it is largely symbolic — only 250 individuals and their families per year — and is infinitesimal compared with the 40,000 people who came to Canada in the first two years of the Global Talent Stream.

Tories’ two-tier system

In naming the many problems that plague the Canadian immigration system, the Conservative platform tries to outflank Justin Trudeau with faux compassion. They correctly claim, “it is plain wrong to stoke anxieties in vulnerable communities, a cynical art that the Trudeau Liberals have perfected,” yet they do exactly that by proposing a two-tier, trickle-down system in which the wealthy can pay for expedited processing of their applications.

This sick monetization of immigration processing is based on the idea that the fast-track fees will help hire additional workers “at no additional cost to the taxpayer” with the trickle-down promise that this will help the vast majority who don’t have the money to bribe the system. This is also coded language for the kinds of public service cutbacks that the Public Service Alliance of Canada predicts under an O’Toole government. Those who survived the Reagan/Thatcher era know all too well that trickle-down approaches never succeed.

Beneath the avuncular image projected by O’Toole, the Tories revert to typically racist dog-whistle blame games, claiming the system suffers not from the institutional racism and complacency that are at the root of the problems, but rather so-called “bogus” refugees (who are in fact refugees who, because of the bias and barriers in the system, find themselves rejected).

They also point to an alleged failure to ramp up deportation orders (despite the Liberals having set a cruel annual quota for deportations, regardless of the painful and often grave outcomes they produce). The Tories also propose moving a lot of immigration processes online, which will be a death knell for many cases, given how difficult it is to access the IRCC portals at the best of times.

Individuals who do not speak English or French and do not have reliable internet — some of the most vulnerable applicants — would be cut out. While they pledge to allow someone to correct an application rather than have the whole package rejected (as often occurs), the Conservatives’ nod to family reunification is based on coded language for private child care, prioritizing those family members whose primary role will be to provide unpaid care for kids in the home (and not in publicly-subsidized daycare).

There is also a thinly veiled “values test” for permanent residence, which is dangled in front of students and temporary workers “so long as they are prepared to work hard, contribute to the growth and productivity of Canada, and strengthen our democracy.” The Tories would also attempt to eliminate government-assisted refugees and privatize the whole process, pushing it on to community groups and churches, all the while hoping to play the Trump card of joint patrols along the U.S. border.

NDP and Green’s aspirations

The NDP’s platform on family reunification is incredibly vague, promising only to “take on the backlog” and “fix the system,” but not saying how. It also fails to expand beyond generalities, and is silent on the lethal Safe Third Country Agreement, under which Canada sends refugee claimants back to the U.S. despite the risk of detention and deportation.

Such sloppiness for an alternative party is problematic, especially since it fails to reference a private members bill by its own tireless IRCC critic, Jenny Kwan, which would stipulate:

“A foreign national who is the subject of a family sponsorship application may remain in Canada as a temporary resident until a final determination in respect of the application is made.”

Nor does the NDP reference the widely-shared proposal by the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) to establish a standard of six months or less to reunite separated children with a parent in Canada (a benchmark that is still too long, and which would likely be abused by bureaucracies that, given an inch, will always take a mile).

While the Greens are unlikely to have much influence on the future shaping of these issues, their platform at least stands out for raising issues that no other party includes in their platforms. For example, they are the only party to recognize and name “systemic racism and discrimination in Immigration and Refugee services” and are also alone in calling for the termination of the lethal Safe Third Country Agreement.

The Greens discuss pathways to permanent residence for temporary foreign workers, increased support for parent and grandparent sponsorship, and lowering the “barriers for convention refugees to reunite with their children and bring them to Canada by making the process more accessible.”

They are also the only party to call for discussions on the definition of “environmental refugees” and the need for Canada to include “an appropriate share of the world’s environmental refugees into Canada.”

While sounding a far sight better than the other parties, the Greens ultimately fail to address how they would address these systemic problems. Simply acknowledging them and saying they need to be fixed mirrors the language of their fellow parties, and leaves those looking for hope with little to cheer.

A million unresolved cases

Given the vagueness and platitudes around the issue of family reunification, Amitis and her mom, Fatemah, have had to resort to the only approach that seems to make the system move: public pressure.

They have started a petition, and are sharing private details of a difficult situation in the hope that someone in the system will find their file, recognize that it takes very little time to approve their temporary resident permit, and help rescue this teenaged girl from the throes of severe, separation-induced depression and the other difficult conditions she faces each day in a country wracked by economic sanctions and an out-of-control pandemic.

The fact that Canada’s refusal to fix the system is forcing Amitis and her mom to share their story with the world is inexcusable. When she was five years old, Amitis could still believe in the magic of a mother’s hugs and tears to bring her back from the brink of despair. But it’s harder to believe right now because of the 10,000 kilometres and two lost years that have kept them apart. Their only hope now lies in building the same kind of sustained public pressure that has reunited other separated families who, like Jihan Qunoo, have had to fight a system that is legally required to assist them in the first place.

Meanwhile, there’s over a million others who require real system change and immediate action to end the pain of indefinite family separation.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image: Amitis Shojaei/Provided
Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.