They want to work, but thousands of asylum seekers are waiting on the sidelines
Pandemic has slowed work permit approvals, leaving potential employees stuck at home
Marius Tapé is bored, restless and frustrated.
The engineer arrived in Canada from the Ivory Coast in July with his teenage daughter, joining his wife and three other children who had already settled in Granby, Que.
Tapé says his family fled the Ivory Coast after he and his wife were attacked for his political affiliation. They are trying to start a new life here, but it's been tough.
"I want to work. I want to help during the pandemic. I want to be useful to the government," said Tapé, noting he'd like to be a worker in the province's health-care network.
"I've been sitting on the same couch for seven months."
But Tapé isn't allowed to work, at least not yet.
It normally takes just a couple of weeks — sometimes up to a month and a half — for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to grant asylum seekers work permits. But, because of COVID-19, the waiting list is long and growing.
Like thousands of other asylum seekers across the country, Tapé is stuck in limbo waiting for the federal government to grant him a work permit.
Weeks turn into months
No one from the IRCC would agree to an interview, but in an email, IRCC spokesperson Derek Abma said moving most of its services online has slowed things down. It's not clear when the pace will return to normal.
He said the IRCC is reaching out to claimants to book appointments for eligibility interviews and is trying to be more flexible.
But immigration lawyer Stéphanie Valois says it will take more than that. She has 15 clients playing the same frustrating waiting game as Tapé.
"For refugee claimants, I would say it's particularly stressful because the fact of just claiming asylum is already a stressful procedure," she said. "They're not able to just get on with their lives."
Valois says she has heard of claimants having difficulty opening bank accounts or renting apartments because they are still waiting for official documents from the IRCC.
She says many of these new arrivals want to work in the health-care sector, meaning the country is leaving valuable help on the sidelines during the pandemic. She says something has to be done, and soon.
One major slowdown, she says, is fingerprinting. Everyone immigrating to Canada, whether claiming refugee status or not, has to be fingerprinted. But the buildings where people could do that were closed for months. Valois says now they are allowing just a handful of people to trickle through.
"I think immigration could reopen its offices and just respect [sanitary] conditions," said Valois. Or, she suggested, they could temporarily suspend the fingerprint requirement.
"[It] has been almost a year or so; the delay is really unreasonable for us."
Cost to Canadians
While he waits, Tapé collects social assistance, stretching $1,318 per month to the limit.
After paying rent, hydro, and food and medication for his one-year-old, there's nothing left over.
He's appreciative of the government assistance, but would rather provide for his family himself — he says two companies are anxiously waiting to hire him.
"I'm ashamed to say we've had to resort to the food bank," he said.
Michael* is in the same position. He fled Lebanon and arrived in Montreal in March, at the onset of the pandemic. He worked in the hospitality industry prior to landing in Canada, having studied hotel management in university.
He is eager to get into Canada's labour force but is also waiting for his permit. In the meantime, he's also collecting social assistance — $735 per month, which is less than his rent.
"It's not enough. I need to work," he said.
Michael has also been turning to a food bank to help him get through this. He says it's depressing.
"The problem is you're sitting, you're not doing anything at all. It's more healthy to work, to do something to feed yourself, that you can be useful somehow," he said.
Robert Falconer, a researcher at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy specializing in immigration and refugee-related issues, says there could be as many as 5,000 asylum claimants waiting for work permits.
He says some might consider working illegally to make ends meet, but that comes with a huge risk.
"Obviously, it jeopardizes their refugee claim. Also, somebody who is working under-the-table might be more exploitable by pernicious or perhaps unscrupulous employers," he said.
Falconer says the delays end up costing taxpayers — through the income support they receive or by the loss of tax dollars if they get paid in cash.
He says the delays are amplified because of COVID-19, but there has been chronic understaffing in the government's immigration system long before the pandemic.
Both Michael and Tapé say they will wait it out and don't want to work illegally. Michael is afraid of what it could mean for his asylum claim.
For Tapé, there's no question of cheating the tax system. "I respect the principles of Canada too much," he said.
*Michael's name has been changed because he fears reprisals in Lebanon.