Refugees feel forgotten as Canada's immigration backlog sits at nearly 2 million applications

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is yet to process 110,661 refugee applications and says the pandemic is creating delays. Many refugee applicants in vulnerable situations are feeling neglected.

Canada has yet to process 110,661 refugee applications and says the pandemic is creating delays

According to numbers from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, there were 110,661 refugee applications — 38,681 government-assisted and 71,980 privately sponsored refugees — yet to be processed as of April 26. In this file photo, eight migrants from Somalia cross into Canada illegally from the United States by walking down this train track. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing

"Immigration is broken." "Refugees as second-class citizens." "Empty promises." "Endless wait."

These are some of the phrases refugees waiting to come to Canada are using as the country's immigration backlog sits at nearly two million applications, more than 100,000 of which are for refugees.

Saskatoon resident Sultan Ali Sadat has been trying for 19 years to bring his parents — who fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan when the Taliban militants took over in the late 1990s — to Canada.

Sadat and his brothers submitted a privately sponsored refugee application for his parents in 2015. Seven years later, the process is still not complete.

According to numbers from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, there were 110,661 refugee applications — 38,681 government-assisted and 71,980 privately sponsored refugees — yet to be processed as of April 26.

Sultan Ali Sadat said that after seven years, Canada finally issued his parents a visa, but they never received it. He said the immigration department is waiting to locate the lost visa before issuing a new one. (Omayra Issa/CBC News)

Sadat first tried bringing his parents through a resettlement agency in 2003. After almost two and half years of waiting, the agency couldn't privately sponsor them.

Sadat tried again in 2006, with a group of five sponsors. His parents were called for an interview on Sep. 9, 2009.

"They only asked one question, whether [his parents] can go back to Afghanistan. My parents said possibly they can. Based on that response, they didn't consider them refugees," he said.

Between 2010 and 2015, the family tried other immigration streams like family reunification and the super visa for parents but to no avail.

Sadat and his five brothers in Canada have reached out to MPs across the country for many years. They have spent "at least three hours a week since 2015" just discussing the application process.

Sadat's father, 76, and mother, 68, are currently in a refugee colony in Pakistan with Sadat's two siblings and have not seen many of their grandchildren in Canada.

The delay also meant their medical examination results, a requisite for immigration, expiring twice. His parents had their latest examinations on April 1.

There was some progress last July when they received a letter from the federal government asking for confirmation of their accommodations.

"We rented a place on Aug. 1 for a year, furnished it and we have been paying for an empty house in Quebec in this economic situation until now."

Recently, through his contacts with immigration authorities, Sadat found that a visa was issued last November, but never reached his parents. He said that IRCC is trying to locate that "lost visa" before they issue another one.

"We've now been told that they'll be processed within the next week, but I don't trust the immigration system."

'Immigration system is broken': Sadat

Sadat has also submitted a separate application for his brother-in-law, Kiramuddin Hassani, who was working with national security forces in Afghanistan. On an October 2019 evening, a man threatened Hassani at gunpoint, asking for information.

"That evening, he called a couple of people in the U.S. embassy he was working with but was denied help. He fled that night with his family to Tajikistan," Sadat said.

Sultan Ali Sadat's brother-in-law, Kiramuddin Hassani, is still waiting with his family in Tajikistan for movement on his refugee file. (Submitted by Sultan Ali Sadat)

With a group of sponsors from Saskatoon, Sadat submitted an application on Feb. 22, 2020. The application was rejected due to one of the co-sponsors' police checks — a fact that was only disclosed when Sadat requested an MP's aid.

With the police check taken care of, the group resubmitted the application on Dec. 23, 2021.

"Until today, I have had zero communication with IRCC. Immigration system is broken. I don't see any accountability from them," Sadat said. "I've lost all hope."

While in Tajikistan, Hassani has to travel three and half hours by bus three days a week to "put dynamite on rocks to break and collect pieces."

"With my parents, from November till now, they have sold everything every time there was a movement on file. Nothing happens and we buy everything again."

Battling with depression

Nour, a 37-year-old LGBT woman, escaped from Syria to Lebanon in 2019 with hopes of coming to Canada. CBC has agreed not to use Nour's surname due to concerns for her safety.

She told CBC News last December that ongoing delays meant her life is at risk everyday and her mental health is deteriorating.

Her situation has only gotten worse. Her partner left her and went back to Syria, as he could not access treatment for diabetes in Lebanon.

Nour submitted her refugee application to the federal government on May 25, 2020, when the processing times were supposed to be 24 months.

According to IRCC's website, the current processing time for refugee applications from Lebanon is 46 months.

"I've so much fear. Before I felt safe with my partner. I have trauma and get terrifying nightmares," she said.

Nour connected with CBC News from Lebanon with the help of a translator. 

She said a cousin who previously threatened to kill her has moved to her neighborhood. To make matters worse, a policeman who forcefully took her contact details last year has been blackmailing her for sex, she said.

"I cannot change my address as landlords don't rent easily to LGBTQ people."

Nour was recently prescribed antidepressants for her "worsening mental health."

"I'm crying a lot these days. I want to scream."

Capital Rainbow Refuge, the group sponsoring her, has tried multiple times to get her application expedited due to her vulnerability, but it was declined by IRCC the first time. Their latest request, sent in February, has still not been addressed.

"As the backlog increases, it almost seems they need a more viable death threat for such cases," Lisa Hébert, board chair at Capital Rainbow Refuge, said.

"It's disappointing. There is no need to take it so long to settle vulnerable people who have already been through so much, especially trans folks."

Hébert said the wait, stress and PTSD create lasting psychological repercussions on refugees. 

Lisa Hébert said while uneven processing time has been an issue for years, the delays are now causing harm to LGBTQ refugees who are already are at risk. (Submitted by Lisa Hébert)

'Process is very slow': refugee

Michel, a gay refugee, fled to Kenya with his partner in 2013 as an asylum seeker. CBC is using only Michel's first name to protect his safety.

While at Kakuma refugee camp, they and other queer refugees were attacked and persecuted by other refugees and police.

Michels said the living conditions were horrid, with a group of 500 refugees depending on "one pump of water that worked once everyday at 5 p.m."

"Everyday it was a fight," Michel said.

"In December 2018, we were attacked. Our friends were beaten, they broke their hands and legs. Others were stabbed."

Michel and others were relocated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to Nairobi as their files were processed.

Michel got in touch with Rainbow New Beginnings, a refugee sponsorship group, which submitted Michel's application in December 2020.

Yves Brunet of Rainbow New Beginnings said refugees cannot rely on police in Nairobi.

"Police are persecutors and will call you derogatory names and encourage people in the cells to insert sticks in people's anuses because they're LGBT," Brunet said.

"We have to pay bribes to the police to release refugees so that they don't have a criminal record, as that will impact their resettlement."

Michel, holding hands with his partner, said he just wants to come to Canada, be a public worker and get married. (Submitted by Yves Brunet)

Michel and his partner have suffered some of these incidents firsthand.

"Since December 2020, we've been waiting and waiting. Last Christmas, there were further attacks by police on them," Brunet said.

"That generated a letter to expedite the process."

On April 14, Michel and his partner were called for an interview and successfully passed to the next step. But now a close contact of theirs has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Michel is concerned it will delay the process by another six to nine months.

Brunet said that while Michel's application got expedited because of the imminent danger, the applications for other 20 refugees in Nairobi have been stagnant for more than two years.

"I just want to come to Canada be a public worker, my partner a plumber, and one day get married," Michel said.

'Not much light at the end of the tunnel': lawyer

CBC News reported in March that Ottawa had a backlog of nearly two million immigration applications.

In an email, IRCC acknowledged the ongoing delays and said it has improved technology and digitized its operations.

"Supported by additional funding of $85 million from the 2021 Economic and Fiscal Update, we are continuing our efforts to reduce application inventories accumulated during the pandemic," the department said in its statement.

Omer Khayyam, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Saskatoon, said the current processing times for refugee applications will only increase as the backlog remains stagnant. (Osman Akthar)

Saskatoon based immigration and refugee lawyer, Omer Khayyam, said IRCC is using COVID-19 as an excuse as the backlog continues to rise.

"The people who are suffering the most are the refugees. The backlog is getting exacerbated and there is inequity in the system," Khayyam said.

"There is not much light at the end of the tunnel."

Khayyam said many applicants feel forgotten. He pointed to how one of his own clients, a single mother of three in Ethiopia, has been waiting more than a year with just a temporary file number.

"Seeing these delays, many refugee applicants are now wondering whether they want to be a refugee and be a second class citizen, or instead stick it out under difficult circumstances."


Pratyush Dayal covers climate change, immigration and race and gender issues among general news for CBC News in Saskatchewan. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UBC and can be reached at