The final leg of an arduous three-year-long refugee process was in sight for Selam Nega and her four-year-old son Dani this fall.
The pair were scheduled to fly from Lebanon to Canada on Oct. 14, more than six months after they’d been granted permanent residency.
They had hoped to leave this spring, but the process was prolonged by the coronavirus pandemic shutting down travel and clogging up the already strained international refugee system.
Globally, resettlement flights were put on hold from March to June, impacting about 10,000 people, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Only about half of the 341,000 expected permanent residents will have arrived in Canada by the end of 2020, the government has reported.
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Landing in Canada would be a moment of triumph for Nega. As a teenager, she escaped domestic violence in Ethiopia, then worked precariously as a housekeeper in Beirut. She was left to raise Dani on her own after his father resettled in Canada without them. HuffPost Canada reported her story in August, following the Beirut explosion.
In the weeks leading up to Nega and Dani’s expected arrival, their Canadian sponsors found an affordable one-bedroom apartment in Toronto, and furnished it with donations from the community, said sponsor Sandra Brunner. Meanwhile, Nega quit her job, gave away many of their belongings, and ended her apartment lease. Dani, 4, had a graduation ceremony at his daycare.
Three days before takeoff, Nega was informed by Caritas, a social service agency working on behalf of the United Nations, that her file was missing a key document that would allow her, as a single parent, to leave the country with Dani. Unable to process the paperwork in the few days remaining, their trip was cancelled.
“I was very upset, very upset,” Nega told HuffPost Canada through a translator. “I wasn’t expecting this to happen. I was happy that I was going to travel, only to be told that I can’t leave after all. I was shocked.”
Nega said she managed to get back into her apartment while she waits for the document to be approved. She is required to prove to the Lebanese government she is Dani’s only parent, but the process has stalled because offices are currently closed due to the pandemic. In the meantime, they’re struggling day to day to find food.
Brunner said the onus is on the labyrinth of agencies involved in Nega’s refugee resettlement file, and demonstrates how the upended system is negatively impacting the daily lives of vulnerable people.
IOM, for example, conducted a security interview with Nega a year ago on behalf of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, when she told officials she was a single mother, Brunner said. The Canadian government and a lawyer signed off on the travel visa, as did the UN. In the year it took to finalize Nega and Dani’s paperwork, none of these organizations flagged she’d require the routine document.
“She should be here right now,” said Brunner, who is gravely concerned about Nega’s safety and has filed a complaint with IOM. “Dani should be in kindergarten. Their new life should be starting. Instead, this error put them directly in harm’s way.”
Lebanon is in an “extreme stage of danger” due to the pandemic, officials said earlier this month. The number of COVID-19 cases spiked following an explosion in Beirut in August; in one month 42,000 people were infected and 277 died. Hospitals don’t have room to admit patients in critical condition. Lebanon is in a full lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, amid a deep economic crisis.
“IOM is very concerned about the safety of all migrants and refugees in Lebanon,” said spokesperson Angela Wells. “Since the Beirut blast, we’ve seen a worrying rise in the number of migrants at risk of food insecurity as well as loss of income, shelter and access to health care.”
IOM said while it assists refugees with arranging flights, health screenings and documents before their departure, it’s up to the host country to decide whether it will allow a foreign national to leave.
“IOM cannot share information publicly on the case of individual refugees, but we can confirm we are doing everything possible to assist and move this case through the resettlement process, which has been greatly slowed down due to the pandemic,” Wells said.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not provide a comment.