With more than 2.4M immigration applications in Canada's backlog, many here and overseas feel lost
Of more than 2 million temporary and permanent residence applications, nearly 1 million are from India
Abdulsalam Dakouri has been trying to bring his brother, a Syrian refugee, and his family in Iraq to Saskatoon for the past four years, but waiting for their application to make its way through Canada's backed-up immigration system has left him dejected.
Dakouri, a research biologist, submitted the private refugee sponsorship application in June 2018. It was rejected in 2019 after the family appeared for an interview, but the department of justice overturned the decision that same year.
"We got a second interview in 2022. We thought after settlement, they will proceed to interview in a reasonable time frame, not two years," he said.
"They've been suffering from depression and anxiety because of all this uncertainty."
With the increasing backlog in the federal immigration department's inventory, many families are searching for answers about their futures. CBC News spoke with dozens of people across Canada and the world who have been waiting for years for decisions on their applications across different immigration streams.
According to data received from the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada department, the country had a backlog of more than 2.4 million immigration applications as of June 29, up from 1.8 million applications in March.
Dakouri said his brother cannot access any jobs and has been eagerly waiting to get his four children enrolled in schools in Canada.
"His youngest daughter was one year old when we applied. She has a disability and we were hoping to get her here for speech therapy. She is almost six now," he said.
Ghassan Abusawawin, who escaped the horrors of Gaza in 2015, understands. A year earlier, his mother was injured in a hospital bombing.
After several years of being what he describes as "stateless," he made it to Indonesia.
He applied to Canada in May 2020, with sponsorship from the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa and a group from the U.S.
"When I submitted the application, the processing time was 18 months, during the pandemic it became 33 months. Early 2021, it was nine months, then seven months. The wait times are not reliable," he said.
"I'm suffering from depression and insomnia. I have started to lose hope."
In an email, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada acknowledged the ongoing delays and said it has improved technology and digitized its operations to reduce processing times.
"IRCC is moving towards a more integrated, modernized and centralized working environment in order to help speed up application processing globally," the department said in a statement.
'False hopes, false promises'
Behi Shafiesarvestani has been trying to bring her niece, Baran, and nephew, Bamdad, to Canada since their mother died unexpectedly of carbon monoxide poisoning in Iran in April 2019. After their visitor visas were rejected, she tried twice to bring them via study permits.
"It's heartbreaking and frankly disappointing," said.
The application was declined. The family's lawyer, Alia Rosenstock, said the immigration officer in charge told them, "the cost of putting the kids in public schools in Toronto wouldn't be worth it."
The department of justice decided last December that the applications should be reconsidered. Baran's application was declined again and no decision has been made for Bamdad.
"I'm really sad. I want to come to Canada but it shouldn't be this hard," 14-year-old Baran said from Turkey.
The family remains separated.
"We've been given false hopes, false promises by government authorities when it comes to immigration," Shafiesarvestani said.
"It makes me feel they are looking at me not as a Canadian citizen but judging me on my colour of skin."
'Canada is discriminating against Iranian students'
A group of 150 Iranian students have been waiting to pursue their education in Canada for many years. They have even signed a petition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Sasan Ahmadiannamini lost his fully funded PhD position at the University of Saskatchewan after he waited for more than four years to receive a study permit.
"Every time I received a template response, be patient. How can I be patient?" the 37-year-old from Tehran asked.
Behzad Parvaresh, who submitted his study permit application in 2019, said he knows 15 other students who have also been waiting for more than three years for their study permits. IRCC is no longer providing country-specific processing times on its website.
Farzane Farahi said she sent numerous emails to the visa offices in Ankara and Ottawa, multiple web forms to IRCC and reached out to three members of parliament. She has now lost her position and, like most others, her English proficiency examination result has also expired.
I'm sorry for myself that I chose Canada to continue my study. I wasted my time. Canada is discriminating against Iranian students.- Farzane Farahi
Supported by additional funding of $85 million in 2021, IRCC said it is working to reduce the application backlog accumulated during the pandemic.
"The funding builds on the work that has already been done to reduce wait times, such as hiring new processing staff, digitizing applications, and implementing technology-based solutions such as digital intake and advanced analytics," the department said.
Need for race-based data
Many applicants raised concerns about IRCC taking longer to process their applications based on their country of citizenship.
CBC News obtained data from IRCC breaking down more than 2.4 million applications by country of citizenship.
Of more than two million temporary and permanent residence applications, nearly a million came from India.
"In the case of India, country-specific restrictions during the pandemic made it harder for individuals to submit documents, obtain medical appointments, provide us with their biometrics and for us to finalize applications," IRCC said.
Aside from France, Ukraine and the U.S., the 30 countries with the most pending applications are in the global south.
India also has the most temporary residence applications in the backlog with 430,286, followed by Ukraine at 329,920.
"There's systemic racism and discrimination within IRCC," Amir Attaran, professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said.
Toronto-based immigration lawyer Lou Janssen Dangzalan said the department lacks transparency and accountability. He said since many countries have very diverse ethnic and racial demographics, "collecting race-based data is very important."
A report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration released in May recommended that IRCC collect race-based data.
'1st come, 1st served is not the case with IRCC'
Azabelle Tale, who has been waiting for a decision on her citizenship application since March 22, 2018, said there is systemic discrimination and "zero empathy" in the system.
"My sister got very sick after a heart attack. I sent in an emergency request for my case, literally using the word 'begging' in my web form," Tale said.
Tale's permanent residence card expired during the wait. Her sister's heart failed on Jan. 26 and Tale could not visit her. Now, her mother is unwell.
"I've struggled a lot. My mental health is ruined."
Ahmed Khalifa, who moved from Egypt to Stoney Creek, Ont., said as he has been waiting since 2019 for citizenship while applicants from last year have already been invited for the oath ceremony.
"First come, first served is not the case with IRCC," Khalifa said.
Khalifa, like many other applicants waiting for citizenship, has lost travel and work opportunities.
Jason Williams has been waiting for his permanent residence application to be processed for almost 20 months. His wife and kids are in Qualicum Beach, B.C., but he remains in the U.K.
Williams doesn't know what to tell his kids when they ask when he will be back.
"I can't create memories with them," he said. "I wonder what my kids think about our relationship."
IRCC said the 2022 federal budget included $2.1 billion over five years and $317.6 million ongoing in new funding to support the processing and settlement of new permanent residents.
Mandamus as the last remedy
Following a two-year delay on his permanent residence application, Winnipeg resident Utsav Patel made a mandamus application — which asks the Federal Court of Canada to direct IRCC to issue a decision — in early March.
His application was approved two months later.
Patel's mandamus cost him $4,500 on top of the regular costs of a permanent residence application.
"Not everyone can afford that," he said.
Lev Abramovich, a lawyer focused on immigration litigation, said his firm is on its 230th mandamus file in the last year.
"Unfortunately, retorting to mandamus seems like the last remedy," he said.
Abramovich said IRCC needs to change its structures and put more emphasis on human connections.
"If not, it will impact Canada's image on the world stage."