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Paperwork backlog leaves B.C. international students in limbo

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WATCH: They came to Canada as foreign students to study and work on a path to eventual citizenship. But now, thanks to a pandemic paperwork backlog, they're unable to work leaving that path and their lives in limbo. Neetu Garcha reports – Feb 16, 2022

A backlog of paperwork being blamed on the pandemic has thrown the lives of many international students living in British Columbia into limbo.

Among them is Ekam Sandhu, a 20-year-old student from India, who recently graduated with a diploma in tourism from Hanson College in New Westminster.

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Like many international students, Sandhu was seeking to secure a work permit and a job, starting the path to permanent residency.

But he told Global News he learned last month that his work permit application was denied, with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) telling him graduates from his school were not eligible.

Sandhu said that doesn’t make sense, as many of his classmates in the same program were approved.

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“I was completely shocked. I had no idea why my application was refused, and she stated that your college is not eligible. After studying so hard for 16 months and paying $32,000 in fees, and now I’m not even allowed to work or stay in this country — it seems unfair to me,” he said.

The refusal leaves Sandhu in a difficult spot.

While he is allowed to re-apply, the process takes months, and he no longer has status in Canada — meaning he can’t work and doesn’t have MSP coverage.

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“There is my mental health, there is my financial situation, I feel disturbed when I see how I am going to survive the next five, six months of my life is without having any income and so many bills,” he told Global News.

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Hanson College, a private institution, has a partnership with Ontario’s Cambrian College, allowing students to earn a public college diploma.

Sandhu has multiple support letters confirming the colleges’ partnership dating back to 2005, and that he graduated under that partnership.

In a statement to Global News, IRCC insisted the B.C. campus was exempt from the program.

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But immigration consultants Global News spoke with said that isn’t true.

Subbalakshmi Arunachalam Pillai, a regulated Canadian immigration consultant, said Sandhu is not alone in his plight, and that a combination of inconsistencies in handling applications and pandemic-driven backlogs at IRCC have left many students in a status of legal limbo.

“There are cases where the decision has not been made up to a year, where students have to manage by borrowing or living with friends and getting money back from India. It is not an easy situation where they can survive too long,” she said.

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“The processing time has been extended so much that some students are in the stage they are becoming suicidal.”

Read more: Pandemic takes tragic toll on international students with rising deaths by suicide: report

Pillai said students are left with a bill of about $600 to re-submit their applications, further adding to the hardship.

She said students who are left without status in Canada become extremely vulnerable to exploitation, through pay-to-work schemes or to unscrupulous employers who offer them under the table work for below minimum wage.

Sandhu, who was working in a grocery warehouse prior to losing his status, said he felt it was unfair that Canada wanted him as an essential worker during the worst months of the pandemic, but has left him with few options now.

“When COVID was at the peak, and everyone was staying at home international students were told they can work more than 20 hours. So we were working 50-60 hours,” he said.

“They want international students in this country, but they do not want to take care of them. They just want to use them whenever there is an appropriate time, they just want international students to come here, pay three, four times the regular student, and just work for two or three years.”

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Amid growing backlogs and what Pillai said were numerous similar cases, the immigration consultant said she wants the government to allow students to work legally while they wait for their resubmitted applications to be processed, and for the application fees to be waived.

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