Canadians trying to travel to India now face having their plans ruined

'Diaspora is now stranded' in Canada, immigration lawyer says

Posted: September 21, 2023
Last Updated: September 22, 2023

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CBC News spoke with people in line outside a visa application centre in Surrey, B.C., following the Indian government's announcement of visa service suspensions for Canadians.  2:02

Hour after hour on Thursday, a steady flow of people came around the side of a nondescript building in Surrey, B.C., holding brown folders and stacks of paperwork. A lone security guard cracked the door below a sign for BLS International, just enough to speak quietly with people outside.

The agency, which typically processes visa requests for India, was busy through the morning after the Indian government suspended visa services for citizens of Canada — another step in a diplomatic conflict that is now trickling down to affect everyday people. 

Many of the people waiting on Thursday had appointments and were looking for answers, despite the suspension. 


"It's a very complex situation, but if we cannot travel, we are the ones who are going to suffer, not the diplomats," said Manbir Singh, who is trying to get his paperwork squared away before travelling to India for family weddings in November and January.

Other have more urgent needs, he said: "There are also people who don't have [health] coverage here who might want to go back to India for better service.

"Those are the people who are going to suffer the most."

(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Many visiting the agency said they were increasingly on edge over the deepening conflict between Canada and India. The suspension means that Canadians who don't already have visas will not be able to travel to India until services resume.

The conflict "has left us all distraught," said Santosh Sandhu, who has already paid for flights in October but couldn't get an answer from BLS on Thursday about whether her visa will come through.


Some were reluctant to speak to reporters, worried an interview would negatively affect their applications, but agreed visa delays at this time of year mostly affect people travelling for health or events like weddings and the Diwali festival later in the fall.

WATCH | Canadians feel personal impact of visa suspension: 

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Canadians hoping to travel to India have been hit hard by India's sudden decision to suspend visa services. The Indian government says it's due to security concerns at visa offices in Canada.  2:00

"Whenever we deal with international disputes, it's the ordinary people who find themselves caught in the crossfire," said immigration lawyer Raj Sharma.

"That diaspora is now stranded in Canada."

Sharma said the visa suspension will effectively freeze aspects of tourism, business, trade and international study.

WATCH | Indian diaspora feeling 'stranded' after visa suspension: 

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Immigration lawyer Raj Sharma says the dispute between the two countries has left the Indian diaspora feeling "stranded" after India suspended services at its visa processing centres in Canada.  1:32


Canada-India relationship plummets

Ties between Ottawa and New Delhi, key strategic partners in security and trade, dropped to their lowest point in years this week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were "credible allegations'' the Indian government was involved in the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader on Canadian soil in June.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who had been wanted by India for years, was shot in June outside the gurdwara he led in Surrey, a city of more than half a million people east of Vancouver.

A prominent Sikh leader, Nijjar, 45, had been active with a group supporting the push for an independent Sikh homeland in northern India called Khalistan — a debate that has divided Hindu nationalists and Sikh separatists for decades.

WATCH | Indian official makes damning accusation:

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A spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs, taking questions after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of being linked to the killing of a Sikh leader in B.C., says Canada has a growing reputation as a safe haven for 'terrorists, for extremists and for organized crime.'  0:22

The stunning accusation from Trudeau set off tit-for-tat reactions, with the countries each kicking out a diplomat. India has forcefully denied involvement in Nijjar's death.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi blamed the visa suspension, which includes visas issued in third countries, on safety issues.


"Security threats being faced by our High Commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, they are temporarily unable to process visa applications,'' Bagchi told reporters.

"We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis.''

He gave no details on the alleged threats.

BLS has locations in other cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Brampton, Ont.

Roughly 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India in 2021, making them the fourth-largest group, according to India's Bureau of Immigration. 

LISTEN l A long-simmering dispute with periodic eruptions of violence:

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Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot and killed outside his gurdwara in Surrey in June just after evening prayers. While the Sikh community has been urging investigators to get the bottom of what happened, it’s been quiet until a bombshell announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau on Monday: Canada believes there are “credible allegations” the Indian government was behind it. Since then it’s been a diplomatic firestorm. Diplomats are being pulled from both Canada and India and Canada’s allies are weighing next moves. But who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar and why do some, particularly members of the Sikh community, believe the Indian government wanted him dead? Jaskaran Sandhu from Baaz News and the World Sikh Organization takes us through who Nijjar was, the reasons he feared for his life and the long-standing tensions between India and the Sikh community. For transcripts of this series, please visit:  24:05

With files from The Canadian Press and B.C. Today