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They were ready to start a new life in Canada, then the coronavirus struck

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WATCH ABOVE: Thousands of immigrants are stranded in their home countries unable to relocate to Canada. In many cases these would be permanent residents have approved documentation that has expired while they plead for help and new documentation. Morganne Campbell explains.

Harleen Kaur’s bags are packed but she has nowhere to go.

Last December, the Canadian government told her she was approved to become a permanent resident. So she quit her job as a scientific project manager in India and prepared to move to Toronto.

Read more: Popular Canadian visa program for parents, grandparents reverting to lottery system

She and her family booked flights for early April. But then the novel coronavirus pandemic struck. All international flights leaving India were cancelled and the travel documents she and her family were issued by Canadian immigration authorities expired on April 27.

Now, six months later, Kaur says she and her husband, along with their two young children, are stuck in India. Even though flights between the two countries resumed in May, they can’t fly to Canada because the government hasn’t renewed their travel documents.

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Canadian immigration and embassy officials also haven’t provided a clear timeline for how long it will take before these types of documents will be renewed, Kaur said, leaving her and potentially tens of thousands of other would-be immigrants feeling stranded.

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Read more: International students call for COVID-19 immigration changes in Toronto

“The problem is that we have been kept in the dark,” Kaur said from her home in Bangalore, India.

“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like an endless wait.”

According to government data, more than 85,500 people immigrated to Canada from India in 2019. India is the largest source of newcomers to Canada, making up nearly a quarter of all new immigrants over the past three years.

Between April and July, the first four months after lockdowns triggered COVID-19 restrictions, the number of permanent residents arriving in Canada from all countries dropped by about 63 per cent compared to the same time period last year, according to Immigration Canada data. That’s a decrease of roughly 83,000 people.

It’s unclear how much of this drop is due to people being unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions, and how much is due to the government being slow to renew previously-approved residency applications.

Family losing hope

On March 18, Canada imposed travel restrictions for international flights, including prohibiting non-essential air travel for foreign nationals. But anyone whose permanent resident status was confirmed on or before this date was exempt from these rules and allowed to travel to Canada so long as they have a valid entry visa.

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Then, on March 23, India banned all international air travel, including departing flights, affecting people like Kaur and her family.

Read more: Canada eases coronavirus border restrictions for siblings, grandparents, permanent residents

By the time international flights resumed — Air India operated at least 100 flights from New Delhi to Toronto and Vancouver between late May and the end of August — the Kaurs’ travel documents issued by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada were no longer valid.

And despite the fact that Canada has since set up an online portal for people with expired documents to get extensions, very few applicants have received the authorization they need to travel.

“We have contacted approximately 300 people so far [who completed the online process] and we are waiting on a number of them to get back to us with supporting information,” said Immigration Canada spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon.
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Global News asked Immigration Canada how many permanent resident documents have expired since the start of the pandemic and how many have been renewed. The government did not answer either of these questions directly. It also declined to say how many people have asked for an extension of their travel documents.

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At this point, Kaur said, she and her husband have all but given up hope, putting their immediate plans to move to Canada on hold.

“It was a big blow for us,” she said. “This is the most challenging time we have faced as a family.”

Government offers bad advice

Immigration Canada says it is facing unprecedented challenges due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, including the need to close visa offices around the world.

Despite these challenges, however, the government says it is processing renewal applications submitted through the online portal from confirmed permanent residents “as quickly as possible.”

The application requires submitting numerous details, including living arrangements, possible job offer, plus plans for accessing basic services, such as groceries and medical care, during the required 14-day quarantine period upon arriving in Canada.

Read more: Minister said no one ever got COVID-19 on a flight. Here’s what the research says

Would-be immigrants must also have a compelling reason for coming to Canada now, such as being reunited with an immediate family member or working in the health-care sector, before their expired documents will be renewed.

But some of the instructions on Immigration Canada’s website for completing this process are misleading and have caused applicants to fork over thousands of dollars for flights they then have to cancel.

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Prashant Gupta, from Kolkata, India, says he’s completed Immigration Canada’s web form at least a dozen times trying to get his documents renewed.

According to the online instructions for the form, priority will be given to people with “proposed or confirmed” travel plans and to those willing to travel “immediately once approved.”

To boost his chances of success, Gupta booked a flight departing Aug. 25 from Delhi to Toronto and sent his confirmation to the government. But he then had to cancel the ticket because he didn’t hear back from Immigration Canada in time. The cancelled ticket, worth nearly $1,400, has not yet been refunded, he said.

“We’re looking for hope here, but we’re not getting it,” Gupta said.

Read more: The COVID Alert app isn’t working as well as it should be, and Canadians are part of the problem

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Global News asked the government why it advises people that priority will be given to those with confirmed travel plans when there are no clear timelines for how long it takes to renew documents.

In an email sent Sept. 18, the government said Immigration Canada’s website would be changed to advise people not to purchase tickets until after their applications are approved. As of Oct. 7, the website remained unchanged.

“We ask that individuals provide [Immigration Canada] with a proposed travel itinerary to show that they have looked into whether they can transit through other countries while on route to Canada,” Fénelon said.

Families separated

Reetendra Desai, an IT recruiter living in Toronto, has been trying to get his wife’s expired entry visa and permanent resident documents renewed for months.

“It’s horrible. I just cannot imagine what she might be going through,” Desai said.

Desai married his wife in India after immigrating to Canada. He then sponsored her resident application so she could join him in Toronto.

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Her entry visa was granted on March 18 — five days before India suspended all international air travel and the last day Canadian officials said foreign nationals were exempt from travel restrictions.

Since then, however, Desai has been unable to get his wife to Canada. He’s completed Immigration Canada’s web form multiple times without success. The responses he gets are always the same, he said, generic replies with no real answers.

“If things don’t move, I think I’m just gonna say goodbye to everything that I’ve made here — to the dreams I have here,” he said.

Problems not limited to India

Immigration Canada did not answer questions about what, if any, countries other than India are experiencing delays in processing renewal applications for expired residency documents, and whether this issue is limited to a specific region.

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However, the government did say India “remains one of the top countries in terms of application volumes.”

“Processing times vary from country to country and IRCC is regularly reallocating resources to address fluctuations in the number of applications,” Fénelon said.

Read more: Winnipeg couple living immigration nightmare after birth of baby in India

Global News has, however, spoken with people in Bangladesh, Nigeria and the United States who say they too have been unable to get their residency documents renewed, despite having completed the government’s web form on multiple occasions.

There has been a significant drop in immigrants coming to Canada from some countries. For example, in 2019, there were 33,240 permanent residents from India who came to Canada between April and July. But in 2020, during the same period, there were only 13,140 — a drop of more than 20,000. For the Philippines, which had the second-largest decline in immigrants moving to Canada, these numbers were 10,800 in 2019 and 2,750 in 2020.

There are also groups on social media platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram with thousands of members from all over the world who say they’re unable to get their documents renewed. Many of these people express similar frustrations about having quit their jobs in anticipation of moving to Canada, pulling their kids out of school, and burning through life-savings meant to be used to start a new life in Canada.

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Dr. Samira Tasnim, a physician from Bangladesh, said she and her family have been contacting Immigration Canada relentlessly for months with nothing but generic replies.

“I’m a physician and a researcher [but] I’ve quit my job for more than five months now, which is a long break for my career,” she said.

Read more: 20 million Canadians still don’t have full access to the COVID Alert app. Why?

Tasnim says she and her husband also sold their home, furniture and car in anticipation of immigrating to Canada. Instead of using this money to support themselves after moving, they’re now using it to cover basic living expenses since neither of them are working.

“Why are they holding us back? Why are they withholding this extension?” Tasnim said.

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A spokesperson for India’s High Commission in Ottawa told Global News there are no domestic travel restrictions that prevent an Indian citizen with a valid entry visa from travelling to Canada. This includes anyone whose documents expired but are then renewed by the Canadian government.

In August, Air Canada also resumed a limited number of flights between India and Canada, with plans to expand service even further in October, pending approval from India’s aviation ministry.