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Racial bias amplifying Canada’s high study permit refusal rate

Canada’s immigration department should make the study permit process more transparent to reduce discrimination against African students, a parliamentary committee has recommended. 

The committee heard that study permit refusal rates by IRCC peaked at 49% in 2020. Photo: Unsplash

Refusal rates were particularly high among students from Africa

The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration published its report on the differential treatment of foreign students on May 31, after hearing evidence earlier this year about issues including high study permit refusal rates and racism within the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Study permit refusal rates by IRCC peaked at 49% of all applications in 2020 before dropping to an estimated 40% in 2021. 

Refusal rates were particularly high among students from Africa, despite the government’s francophone immigration targets – witnesses noted that students from French-speaking African countries play an important role in achieving these. 

Martin Basiri, co-founder and CEO of ApplyBoard, told the committee that, between 2019 and 2021, the average francophone African refusal rate of 73% was similar to the average refusal rate for the rest of Africa at 75%. 

The report listed 35 recommendations in total, including that IRCC “provide data on study permit processing times and reasons for refusal, broken down by applicants’ country of origin”. 

Marc LeBlanc, assistant director of international relations at Universities Canada, said the organisation was pleased to see the recommendations and that “addressing high refusal rates is also an important first step in our efforts to diversify our international student population”.

“Universities also recognise we have a role to play in addressing this growing issue,” LeBlanc said.

“We’re ready to work with the federal government to help ensure our prospective students meet the necessary requirements to receive a favourable decision on their study permit.”

Some students have also been rejected for study permits because they failed to prove their intention to leave after studying. 

However, as witnesses pointed out, this is at odds with government and institutional strategies for attracting international students by promoting the chance to apply for permanent residency after study. 

For example, in 2016, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia launched its “Study and Stay” initiative that provides support to students who are interested in working in the region after graduation. 

Subsequently, the report stated that IRCC should “review and clarify the dual intent provision… so that the intention of settling in Canada does not jeopardise an individual’s chances of getting a study permit”. 

Shamira Madhany, Canada managing director and deputy executive director at World Education Services, welcomed the recommendation.

“We need to retain international students in Canada and support their transition to the workforce,” she said. “Aligning policies and practices with Canada’s intent to welcome them long-term is essential.”

But responding to the recommendation, Gideon Christian, a law professor at the University of Calgary who gave evidence to the committee, said that the dual intent provision is already “very clear” – by law, foreign nationals who intend to settle permanently can also apply for temporary permits. 

“It’s up to IRCC now to educate the visa processing officers as to what should be the appropriate application of dual intent in the course of their decisions,” he said. 

The report also found that IRCC visa officer decisions “may be affected by racial bias”, following evidence from an employee focus group in which instances of racism were reported including “widespread internal references to certain African countries as ‘the dirty 30,’ and stereotypes of Nigerians as particularly untrustworthy”.

IRCC said that it is “committed to a fair and non-discriminatory immigration system” and that it has “taken a number of steps to make real and lasting change within the department.

“Over the last year and a half, we have made progress and will continue to build on our efforts. We are committed to eliminating all forms of racism and discrimination at IRCC.”

The committee recommended the establishment of an ombudsperson’s office to review “regular reports on racism” and that IRCC “provide regular metrics on the results of the anti-racist and anti-oppression trainings undertaken by the department”. 

“The question is whether IRCC or the minister will choose to act on them”

However witnesses are sceptical that the report will lead to tangible change.

“The question is whether IRCC or the minister will choose to act on them at the end of the day,” said Lou Janssen Dangzalan, a barrister and solicitor who gave evidence to the committee. 

“CIMM has for several cycles made specific recommendations that keep coming back, such as the creation of an ombudsman, the collection of race-based data, among others. 

“IRCC has chosen not to implement or sometimes even discuss [or] consider them in their reports.”

CIMM already recommended that IRCC create an ombudsperson office last September

Will Tao, a Canadian immigration and refugee lawyer who also appeared in front of the committee, believes that it will be “very easy for the recommendations to be skipped over as they were when the issues first emerged”.

“My recommendation would be to focus on the ombudsperson or commission first so they figure out what the priorities are and perhaps the projects that are feasible to be carried out,” Tao said. 

An IRCC spokesperson said it is “still reviewing the report and recommendations… including reviewing options to action the recommendations, in order to determine how best to move forward.”

The parliamentary report also called on IRCC and Canadian institutions to regulate recruiters in the international education sector, including providing information to applicants about safeguarding themselves against fraud, following evidence of fraudulent activities by agents working with overseas students. 

WES Canada told the committee that international students “often have inaccurate or missing information from recruitment agents, which affects their applications”. 

Reflecting on the report, Shamira Madhany, managing director, Canada, and deputy executive director at WES, said that the recommendation “sends a clear message that Canada is cracking down on misconduct”.

“Information on potential fraud is a good first step, however, this does not go far enough because it puts the onus on international students to protect themselves,” Madhany said.

An IRCC spokesperson said: “The Government of Canada recognises the tremendous social, cultural and economic benefits that international students bring to Canada.

“All study permit applications from around the world are assessed equally and against the same criteria, regardless of the country of origin.”

Despite doubt about the ultimate impact of the report, stakeholders in Canada working with overseas students believe that its publication represents some progress.

“Ultimately I think it is too early to tell how this will impact African applicants and students. A lot more trust building, work and resourcing needs to be done but I am hopeful that we are at least starting the conversation,” said Tao. 

“The work never ends,” echoed Dangzalan. “There will always be work done to continue to keep Canada as an attractive destination for international students, especially from francophone Africa.”

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