July 2020 marked a year since Rida Khan submitted a spousal sponsorship application so that she could live together with her husband Abdul Wasay Khan in Calgary.
According to information on the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website, spousal sponsorship applications usually take around 12 months to process. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the processing times have lengthened indefinitely, leaving many applicants stuck in limbo — with no information as to when they may be reunited with their families.
“The last update we got was in March,” said Khan. “Our application has been stuck at the London office for about five months now and we haven’t heard anything at all since then.”
This lack of information, combined with the uncertainty and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, has had a big impact on the mental health of many applicants.
“The worst part is just not knowing when we’re going to be together,” said Khan. “There’s a lot of other people like me. We have anxiety, we have depression, there are days when we can’t even get out of bed because we don’t know when we’ll be seeing our loved ones again. Just giving us a little bit of peace of mind would mean a lot to our families.”
“It’s been very tough on both of us, we’ve been anxiously awaiting any news,” said Noor ul ain Mahmood, who applied to sponsor her husband Ibrahim Siddiq in July 2019 and hasn’t had any news about her application since January.
Many families have found support in a Facebook group called Canada Spousal Sponsorship Applicants Affected by COVID-19, which has over 3,600 members.
The group also helps the families organize and raise awareness about their cause. Members of the group campaigned on social media, organized protests in cities across Canada, as well as submitted a petition to the House of Commons, which was signed by more than 5,500 people.
Proposed solution in an unprecedented situation
The petition calls for the introduction of a Special Temporary Resident Visa (STRV), which would allow many applicants to be reunited with their families.
“We understand that it may not be so easy to expedite the process. As a temporary solution, we hope that IRCC will be able to introduce STRV, so that applicants from countries that require a visa will be able to visit their spouses in Canada and stay with them while the process is being finalized,” explains Mahmood. “This would really help support a lot of spouses and children who are awaiting to be reunited with their families, because right now, we’re facing this pandemic alone.”
The cause received endorsement from several MPs: Mathew Green, Alexandre Boulerice and Jenny Kwan from NDP as well as Andrés Fontecilla from Québec solidaire.
On June 8, the government announced an exemption to travel restrictions for immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. It allows them to enter the country, providing they stay for at least 15 days and are subject to mandatory quarantine.
While this helps some families, it does not mean that all applicants can hope to be reunited with their loved ones soon.
“I would like to highlight the disparity in this situation,” commented Miriam Jurigová, Senior Legal Advocate with MOSAIC’s Legal Advocacy Program. “While the government has made it possible for immediate family members to come visit, it is much easier to do so for people from visa-exempt countries, rather than someone who is from a country where they’d have to access a visa before being able to come.”
“There have been some attempts [to speed up the process], but it is still incredibly long for people waiting to be reunited with their loved ones,” added Jurigová.
What makes the circumstances more difficult is that many government offices, both in Canada and abroad, have been impacted by the pandemic.
“Every single kind of application is currently taking longer – there are individuals who are in Canada, awaiting work permits, that are taking two-three times longer than they should,” comments Tatiana Gomez, a Montreal-based lawyer working primarily in the area of immigration and refugee law.
In a statement to NCM, IRCC Communications Advisor Lauren Sankey said that IRCC has “assured sponsors and applicants that no application will be closed or refused due to a lack of documentation or an inability to complete the application process under the normal timelines.” Moreover, IRCC continues to accept and process applications throughout the pandemic, including family sponsorship applications, despite its limited operational capacity.
However, some advocates for the cause are critical of the government’s response to the issue.
“The only new measures that have been noted in the response is the extension of deadlines during the pandemic, which I believe fails to address the issue at hand,” MP Jenny Kwan wrote on her social media profile, referring to the letter she received from Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino. “The current process is clearly insufficient and is preventing spouses from reuniting in a timely manner.”
The authors of the petition also point out that the issue has existed before and that many application delays have already exceeded the 12-month timeline at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the uncertainty of the situation, the applicants hope that the government would recognize that the priority for many families is to simply be able to be together.
“A lot of people are fighting terrible battles on top of this global pandemic, and being in isolation during this kind of time really takes a toll on their mental health,” said Mahmood. “I hope the government can hear our concerns and implement a solution.”