TORONTO — Canada will make it easier for temporary residents from Turkey and Syria to extend their stay in the country and will prioritize the visa applications of people from these two countries, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said on Saturday.
More than 50,000 people have been killed and millions displaced after the 7.8-magnitude quake and several powerful aftershocks hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on Feb. 6.
Fraser said the government will allow people from Turkey and Syria who have a temporary status to visit family, study or work in Canada to apply for an extension and will waive the application fees for them.
He said his department will also prioritize processing temporary visa applications for people affected by the earthquake.
"For those who apply for a temporary residency visa, we will be able to treat their applications with priority processing," Fraser said at a news conference in Mississauga, Ont.
"(There are) special measures that we're implementing, internal to our system, to provide guidance to our officers to facilitate the approval of their cases so they can come to Canada."
Fraser said the government has learned from its efforts to accept people fleeing Ukraine after the Russian invasion of their country last year. The government offered temporary protection to large numbers of people from Ukraine much faster than it could through ordinary refugee resettlement programs, he said.
"We're using a new strategy to help facilitate the arrival of people who find themselves in those situations (who) ordinarily may not be approved to come to Canada," he said.
"The specific mechanism that we're using involves the use of advanced analytics within (the immigration department) system to identify people who have been impacted by the earthquake and to render a positive eligibility decision for a whole group of applicants at once."
As of March 10, about 600 Syrian and 6,400 Turkish residents in Canada had temporary status that is set to expire within the next six months, the government said.
There were close to 16,000 Canadian visa applicants from Turkey and Syria as of Feb. 8, including about 1,700 applicants who live within the area that was impacted by the earthquakes, said the government.
Marwa Khobieh, executive director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, said the new government measures to help those impacted by the earthquake are a start, but more work is still needed to support the survivors.
About 6.9 million people were internally displaced inside Syria before the earthquake and more than 6.8 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since 2011, including 3.6 million in Turkey alone, according to the United Nations.
"Not everybody is aware of the challenges that Syria is facing due to the crisis prior to the earthquake," Khobieh said.
"Especially (people) in northwest Syria, they don't have any even government that would represent them, how are they going to apply?"
Khobieh said it's important that the government continue working with community organizations to find solutions to logistical challenges that could prevent many from applying to come to Canada.
Sima Acan, president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations, said the government response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria has been slow and the government's new measures are not enough to support Canadians who want to bring their loved ones from the earthquake region.
"Nothing was discussed about (waiving) processing fees for the new applicants from the region. Nothing has been discussed about easing the paperwork (requirements) for the new applicants," she said.
"Hopefully, they will improve the system but as of now, it doesn't seem as mature as it should be."
Acan said new applicants need to give their biometrics so the government can process their visa applications, but many people in Turkey and Syria cannot travel to a Canadian visa office to give their fingerprints and photos.
"We suggested to have a mobile biometric centre southeast of Turkey, so the northern Syrian people can also travel to do their application," she said. "They have mobile units to do biometrics, and they may have a chance to move these units wherever it's convenient for people."
Fraser said he expects that giving biometrics will be the "biggest logistical challenge" for those who want to apply to come to Canada for the areas that were hit by the earthquake.
"People will be required to make their way into a place where we're able to offer biometrics appointments," he said. "We can be flexible and move some of the mobile biometric kits that we have available. It's something we're willing to consider."
Ozgure Sekar said he wants to bring his sister and brother to join him in Canada after the earthquake destroyed their homes in southern Turkey last month.
The Toronto man travelled to areas damaged by the quake to support his family members and friends, before coming back to Canada from the city of Antakya in Turkey earlier this week.
He said his sister lost several members of her family, including her 12-year-old son. His brother, who lived in the family house with his mother, wife and four children, lost his home and job.
"All the city is destroyed. Thousands of people are dead. It's a very bad situation," Sekar said in an interview.
"People are staying in tents. No one is staying in a house. All houses are destroyed. No electricity. The water is not too much. People are crying in mental shock."
Sekar said he has been waiting for the government to make it easier for Canadians with loved ones impacted by the earthquake to apply for them to come to Canada.
"There is no opportunity to stay there. The cities need five to six years to be rebuilt," he said. "The best opportunity is to bring (my sister and brother) for a couple years here. Stay with me. Mentally, they will become better."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2023.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press