International students feeling helpless as COVID-19 leaves semester hanging

Click to play video: 'International students in limbo, left out of government benefits'
International students in limbo, left out of government benefits
WATCH: International students in Canada are raising concerns about their ability to get a higher education as the COVID-19 pandemic continues – Jun 11, 2020

Seven months ago, Aydolu Simsek quit her human resources job in Istanbul, hoping to leave behind Turkey’s economic crisis for a better life in Canada. Little did she know she would find herself in her own economic crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In three months, I will have to find another place because my family said they cannot support me anymore because their savings is also running out,” Simsek told Global News.

The 39-year-old is currently living in student residence while studying to become a career development practitioner but is now looking for more affordable housing.

Simsek is one of many international students worried about lack of income, increasing tuition or that they could run out of time to complete their studies before their visas expire. Some feel they are being left behind when it comes to government aid and other help during the pandemic.

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Like many international students, she was hoping her study permit could lead to permanent resident status. However, even that is in doubt because unemployment in Canada is also on the rise, leaving her precious little time to get the work experience she needs to earn a full-time job and receive permanent resident status.

“The program, in this one year, it might be very tough to find a job and get Canadian experience and get PR status,” says Simsek.

For that reason, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change sent a letter last month to the prime minister and 10 members of cabinet demanding, among other things, permanent resident status for all international students currently in Canada.

“We need a permanent and single response to the situation, which would address access to emergency supports as well as health care and the differential tuition, which is permanent resident status on arrival for all migrants,” Sarom Rho, organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, told Global News.

According to statistics from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), as of the end of 2019, there were 642,480 people in Canada on study permits and 182,200 people on post-graduate work permits.

Click to play video: 'International students rushing to get home in wake of border closures, COVID-19'
International students rushing to get home in wake of border closures, COVID-19

When asked by Global News, an IRCC spokesperson didn’t address the issue of granting permanent resident status to all international students, however Kevin Lemkay said in a statement: “International students currently in Canada who had their classes moved online as part of efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19 will not affect their eligibility for the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program.”

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Lemkay added that international students and other temporary residents can renew or extend their status online.

However, Rho says most of those students are ineligible for federal government aid programs because they don’t meet the minimum income requirements or don’t have a social insurance number and are, at the same time, facing higher tuition fees than Canadian students.

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“International students have to pay… three to four times more tuition, and they are also locked out from emergency income supports like the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, and many cannot access the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit,” Rho told Global News.

IRCC announced on April 22 that it had removed the 20-hour-per-week work limit on international students who are working in an essential service or function such as health care, the supply of food or other critical goods.

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Those higher tuition costs are what’s behind an online petition demanding lower university fees that was started by Siam Ashraful, a computer science student at Dalhousie University.

Ashraful is from Bangladesh and normally works during the summer to pay for tuition, however that job is now in question with the ongoing lockdown in Toronto, where he’s currently living.

He completed some of last semester’s courses online and says it’s not as good as in-person learning.

“I would say the quality definitely degrades a lot. You cannot have a one-to-one talk with your professor and stuff, and there is not enough support system online as there was when I was on campus,” Ashraful told Global News.

Click to play video: 'Dalhousie international students call for reduced tuition after virus moves classes online'
Dalhousie international students call for reduced tuition after virus moves classes online

At the end of May, Dalhousie University announced all tuition fees, including for international students, will go up by three per cent this upcoming year.

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In an interview with CBC, Paul Davidson, CEO of Universities Canada, said international students contribute $6 billion in tuition fees across the country and make up a “substantial amount of a university’s revenue.”

In a statement to Global News, Alison Evans, director of communications for Universities Canada, which advocates for Canadian universities, said: “Many universities are administering emergency bursaries and extending access to university residences for international students.

“Canadian universities are prioritizing the welfare and safety of all students, both domestic and international, and are working tirelessly to support those who find themselves in extenuating circumstances due to COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of international students can do little but wait and see what next semester will look like and how much it will cost.

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