British Columbia

Student visa limbo leaves thousands unable to start school in Canada

Gustavo Camelo is one of thousands of international students ready to start college or university, but he is missing one thing — a Canadian student visa.

New rules came into play for student visas as of March 18 and current wait for approval can be 27 weeks

Gustavo Camelo, left, completed his undergraduate degree at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and is awaiting a student visa so he and his partner, Tom Crocker, can move to B.C. together. (Tom Crocker)

Gustavo Camelo is one of thousands of international students stuck in limbo, ready to start college or university but missing one thing — a Canadian student visa.

The delays in documentation are due to travel restrictions brought in to protect Canadians from the spread of COVID-19. A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the ministry is trying to smooth the process and reduce delays for international students.

International education as a sector contributes $21 billion a year to the Canadian economy.

Camelo completed his undergraduate degree at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and was all set to start his masters degree in chemistry at the University of Victoria this month.

He and his partner rented a $1,800-a-month Victoria apartment and couldn't wait for September. 

But then came COVID-19. The border closed and new rules came into play for student visas as of March 18.

Even international students approved before March are not automatically allowed to travel to Canada. Foreign nationals with a valid study permit or letter of introduction dated before March 18 may still be denied entry if their reason for travelling is deemed "discretionary."

Students must prove it's necessary for their program for them to be on campus.

Approved for online studies

When Camelo applied on May 15, he said he faced a 27-week wait for processing. So far he has only been approved to begin studies online, but he said he needs to be on campus to do research in order to complete the program. He said if he doesn't get to Victoria soon, he could lose his spot in the program. 

IRCC confirmed there are delays and, right now, restrictions are not being eased — that will depend on how well the virus is contained.

"In regards to processing times, COVID-19 has meant significant challenges continue to affect processing timelines and we are doing our best within existing limitations. Because there are so many different variables involved, we are unable to provide specific timelines at this time," a spokesperson said Monday in an email.

An image of a totem pole in front of a modern campus building, with bicycles in front of it.
The University of Victoria campus is a dream right now for some international students who can't get their student visa approved. (@UVicLib/Twitter)

"It's very stressful. It's hard to have your plans frustrated," Camelo said in a phone interview from the U.K., where he and his dual-citizen partner, Tom Crocker, are waiting for word from Canada.

In July, the pair spent thousands of dollars on flights from Brazil and Canada to meet up in London, as the U.K. was one of the only places they could get in and face only a 14-day quarantine.

They had been separated since December 2019 and the border restrictions kept being extended.

"The U.K. is the only country that has its borders open for anyone," said Crocker.

After reuniting at an Airbnb in London, where they quarantined for 14 days, the couple are staying with Crocker's family near Dorchester until they can finally move back to B.C., where Camelo's British-born partner has lived for a decade.

Camelo said that he is worried what will happen if he can't get to Victoria to do the necessary research and how that will affect his ability to remain in the UVic program, despite his acceptance.

"No one knows exactly what's going to happen," he said.

UVic has assured students that they are trying to ensure their return to campus and will be working online until travel is allowed by government health officials.

"We are doing our best to help our international students succeed. We have provided options for students to stay on track with their academic studies, fulfil their course requirements and graduate on time," said UVic spokesperson Denise Helm. 

"We are in ongoing discussions with the federal government and hope to provide a safe welcome to our international students on campus as soon as possible."


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award (2017). Got a tip?

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