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Ottawa to ease immigration rules for Haiti

OTTAWA–Haitians with close family members in Canada will be moved to the front of the immigration line as the federal government steps up its immediate and long-term commitments to help those in the devastated Caribbean nation.

In an update on the crisis, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Saturday that 1,362 Canadians are still missing in Haiti, down from 1,415 the previous day.

In all, 781 Canadians out of an estimated 6,000 in Haiti at the time of Tuesday's quake have been located, Cannon said. The government's emergency operations centre, which tries to track down individuals unaccounted for in Haiti, has received approximately 21,000 calls.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Ottawa will temporarily fast-track applications for Haitians under the family reunification provision of the Immigration Act, which allows Canadian citizens or permanent residents to sponsor close family members in Haiti as immigrants to this country.

Priority will be given to new applications and to the 2,000 applications now pending, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.

In total, up to 5,000 Haitians could come to Canada under this expedited process, Kenney estimated.

But he said applicants will need to demonstrate that they were "significantly" affected by the earthquake.

New sponsorship applications should be mailed to Citizenship and Immigration Canada with "Haiti" written prominently on the envelope. And sponsors and applicants who have applications in process should notify immigration officials so their cases can be moved to the front of the queue.

Kenney said priority will be given to pending adoption cases with the visa office in Port-au-Prince, and a satellite office to handle applications from Haiti will open soon in Santo Domingo, capital of neighbouring Dominican Republic.

"Canada has welcomed a large community of Haitians to this country and is working to reunite families affected by this disaster as quickly as possible," Kenney told reporters at the news conference.

But his announcement may disappoint some refugee advocates, who had hoped Ottawa would significantly expand the group of people allowed to immigrate under the family reunification process.

The government said Saturday that the speeded-up immigration process applies to spouses, unmarried dependent children, parents or grandparents and an orphaned child under 18 who is a brother, sister, niece, nephew or grandchild of a family member in Canada.

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow said the move is a step in the right direction, but the family reunification program needs to be widened to include siblings.

"Most Canadians would think a brother is part of the family, but right now it's not included in the strict definition of family class," Chow said.

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