Hong Kong path to Canadian permanent residency uneven for some young graduates

People who've come to Canada from Hong Kong using a government program that was meant to get them to work faster say they're worried they won't be able to qualify for permanent residency because of their year of graduation.

Open work permit holders who graduated in 2016 worry they can't fill education requirement

Protesters against the national security law march on July 1, 2020. Numerous activists and protesters have been arrested or jailed for national security reason since the implementation of the law. (Vincent Yu/AP)

People who've come to Canada from Hong Kong using a government program that was meant to get them working faster say they're worried they won't be able to qualify for permanent status.

The Canadian government announced open work permits and two pathways to permanent residency for Hong Kongers over the course of 2021, pointing to the deteriorating human rights situation there, after the passage of the National Security Law. Canada offered the visa passage because of political unrest in Hong Kong after China cracked down on democratic activists. 

CBC News spoke to a woman who came to Canada from Hong Kong with her boyfriend and agreed to protect their identity because of their concerns about political reprisal. 

She said they were relieved when the open work permit was announced in early 2021, which allowed them to come to Canada and work without an employer paying for their application.

"We were able to get an easier pathway, but we cannot get through to the end," she said.

Specifically, she said they're concerned their degrees from 2016 won't be recent enough to count toward the education requirement in the Hong Kong Pathway to Permanent Residency Stream B — which is available to people who've worked in Canada for at least a year.

Applicants to that stream must hold a degree, diploma or graduate credential obtained from a post-secondary institution within the last five years.

Both of them are currently working, but they're also concerned that delays to the processing of express entry applications could force them to return to Hong Kong when their permits expire.

She said after her boyfriend was arrested, but not charged, during protests, they feared they and their friends were being followed by Hong Kong police.

"We're still scared and we don't want to just go back to Hong Kong," she said.

'Stuck between two doors'

Anna Victoria Wong, executive director of the nonprofit Community Family Services of Ontario, said she was surprised at how quickly the federal government responded to the situation though after a year she's noticed gaps in the policy.

"The 2016 and 2017 graduates are sort of stuck between two doors," she said. "In terms of policy, there's a calculation error."

Wong said the policy, which was announced with the goal of filling post-pandemic gaps in the workforce, still doesn't address the issue of having foreign credentials recognized in Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it issued more than 9,000 open work permits related to the Hong Kong special measures in the first year of the program, with about 240 permanent residency applications from that group.

'Cascading' applications

Jamie Liew, an immigration law expert, said steps should be taken to lessen the burden of multiple applications for people trying to navigate Canada's constantly changing immigration system. 

"It really puts people in very precarious and temporary situations and there's no certainty and that they have to wait and apply for cascading line applications," Liew said.

However, she said it's good to see an example of innovation in immigration with a humanitarian goal.

Jamie Liew, who is also chair of the University of Ottawa's Insitute for Feminist and Gender Studies, said different immigration policy approaches in Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine mean people coming to Canada have different access to services. (CBC)

Liew said the policy Canada pursued for Hong Kong migrants raises questions about what kind of refuge is being offered, especially when the Chinese government shows no sign of changing how it handles dissent.

"It is curious that the government is choosing to treat this population as one that needs temporary status only," she said.

In a statement late Friday, IRCC said people in Canada with temporary status under the special Hong Kong measures are eligible to apply for it to be extended from within Canada and will retain their status while applications for more permanent status are considered.

IRCC also said express entry invitations for applications will reopen in July, when the department should be able to hit a six-month processing time target.