NEWS
01/09/2020 22:03 EST | Updated 01/10/2020 06:45 EST

Stories Of Flight 752 Victims Highlight Canada's Growing Iranian Community

Many Iranians came to Canada looking for a more stable life.

OTTAWA — An outpouring of grief over the deaths of dozens of Iranians with ties to Canada in a plane crash this week underscores the fact that while there may not be official diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran, there are clear personal ties.

Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, en route to Kyiv from Tehran on Wednesday, had 138 people on board on their way to Canada when the plane crashed shortly after take-off.  

The stories of the lives that have emerged in the hours since paint a portrait of Canada’s Iranian diaspora, one that’s growing steadily thanks in part to students.

In 2016, 2,437 visas were issued to Iranians to study in Canada. In the first 10 months of 2019, that number stood at 11,754.

GEOFF ROBINS via Getty Images
Mourners light candles for the victims of Flight 752 during a vigil at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto on Thursday.

Many of those killed in the crash were on their way back to their studies, in universities and secondary schools across Canada. Others were preparing to resume their jobs teaching in those institutions, or doing research.

Coming to Canada as a student is seen by many Iranian families as a path to a more stable life, said Nilofar Shidmehr, an Iranian-Canadian writer and professor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

“These are Iranians who can afford to pay high tuition fees (plus) living expenses for their children and later for the entire family until they’ll establish themselves,” she said in an email.

But there’s also politics at play; a U.S. travel ban imposed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president saw many Iranian students shut out of plans to study there. So, they pivoted north, said Toronto immigration lawyer Pantea Jafari.

Canada was a cheaper destination than other countries, and also an easier one for friends and relatives to visit, she said.

GEOFF ROBINS via Getty Images
Mourners weep during a vigil in Toronto.

That too can be seen in the numbers: temporary visas granted to Iranian nationals — including student visas — has risen from 35,793 in 2016 to 99,695 in the first 10 months of this year.

At the same time, there’s also been an increase in refugee claims. The Immigration and Refugee Board reports in the first nine months of the year, 3,993 Iranians lodged claims for asylum. In all of 2018, there were 2,538, and in 2017, just 679.

Jafari said Iranians seeking to emigrate or visit Canada have found themselves caught up in a complicated bureaucracy since the severing of diplomatic ties between Canada and Iran in 2012, including the closure of the Canadian embassy in Tehran.

Travel to neighbouring Turkey is required to apply for visas, and then upon arrival in Canada, wait times to turn those into permanent residency cards often stretch on far longer than for those from other countries, a situation Iranians have blamed on enhanced security screening from the federal government.  

That in turn has driven people to the refugee system, where changes there have often seen claims accepted far faster than processing formal immigration permits, Jafari said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Several hundred people gather around the Centennial Flame for a candle light vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines plane crash on Thursday.

Now, those seeking to emigrate for legitimate reasons are being turned away because the government doesn’t trust they aren’t just coming to claim asylum.

“It’s like they don’t know how to do a middle ground,” Jafari said of the various immigration issues created by government policy towards Iran. 

However, the political climate of Iran has always been a push factor, Shidmehr said. The driver of the first modern wave of Iranian settlement in Canada was the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, and another wave of arrivals can be traced to reformists and political refugees fleeing after the 2009 revolution.

“As the situation in Iran worsened and became more unstable, increasingly more people leave Iran and come to Canada,” she said.

The plane crash has seen a direct channel of communication open between the Iranian and Canadian government; Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne minister spoke to his Iranian counterpart late Wednesday about the investigation into the tragedy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Thursday that while Canada does have significant issues with Iran, this situation is something different.

“It is clear we are coming together in the wake of a terrible tragedy,” he said at a news conference, where he disclosed that intelligence indicates the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile, possibly by accident.

“One can’t forget that the majority of victims on that airline were Iranian citizens and this is something that binds us together in our grief and I think the desire for answers from families who lost loved ones is fairly universal.”

Jafari said the relationship between Canada and Iran, including ongoing sanctions, causes continuing difficulties for the diaspora beyond immigration logistics.

“You don’t have any other communities where the two nodes of your personality, and of your citizenship, and of your being are at such odds with each other,” she said.

“There aren’t many other countries that the U.S. and Canada have such huge concerns with other than Iran. Your left side and your right side are conflicted.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.

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