The calm shores of Esquimalt Lagoon in B.C. feel like a world away from war-torn Afghanistan, where 18-year-old Arifa travelled from two years ago to continue her schooling.
But now her study permit in Canada is set to expire within days and her claim for refugee status has gone unanswered for eight months, leaving her in a legal limbo that prevents her from continuing her studies, working or receiving healthcare.
"It's just so hard to do nothing," she said. "I am pretty much just home all the time."
Like other refugee applicants, she is awaiting confirmation from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that her claim is eligible for review. A decision which would give her access to social assistance, education and health services.
The IRCC, which receives applications for refugee claims before referring eligible cases to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), has acknowledged on its website that the pandemic is affecting processing times for applications. Despite the backlog, the IRCC this month committed to expediting 20,000 additional applications for vulnerable Afghans evacuated from the country, where the Taliban has returned to power.
Immigration lawyer Sarah Goodman says she wishes her clients within Canada, like Arifa, could have their claims looked at sooner too. Normally it takes about one to three months for a case to be referred to the IRB, but many of her clients have been waiting over a year, she says.
Dangers of going home
The first time Arifa left Afghanistan was in 2019, after securing a scholarship to come to Canada. CBC News is withholding her last name to protect her family in Kabul.
At just 16 years of age, she received a student visa to study at a school in B.C., leaving her mother and two sisters behind.
"I never talk about it with my family, but I was really nervous and I was really scared," she said.
But the thought of being sent back now is even more terrifying as she ponders the reality of her permit expiring at the end of the month.
Her older sister narrowly managed to escape injury at an attack on Kabul airport on Thursday while trying to flee the country.
Arifa's family is Hazara, an ethnic minority group from the mountainous Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan who have faced discrimination since they belong to the Shia sect. Arifa's father fought for the Afghan military and was killed 10 years ago.
Now a Western-educated woman, Arifa fears she would become even more of a potential target for the Taliban if she were forced to return.
"Being a woman and being able to study in Canada is a privilege," she said. "But at the same time it's kind of a dangerous situation to be in, in Afghanistan."
Becoming a refugee in Canada
There are many ways to apply to become a refugee in Canada. A person can apply after arriving at a land, air or sea border. A person can also apply from within Canada at an inland office.
Goodman, the immigration lawyer, says applying for refugee status while in Canada is not uncommon.
"Most of them initially came here on visas, whether that's a visitor visa, study visa or work visa and they are scared to go back to their home countries so they file refugee claims from within Canada," she said.
In a non-pandemic year like 2018, about 14 per cent of all successful refugee applications processed by the IRCC were made from within Canada, according to their records.
Once a person is deemed eligible to make a claim they have access to social assistance, education, health services and emergency housing, says the IRCC.
The delays in having their claims found eligible to proceed to the next stage means that people like Arifa have no proof of status to live in the country and cannot work, study, open a bank account or get a social insurance number, said Goodman.
"We're not even talking about a substantive refugee claim, we're actually just talking about the visa office saying 'Yes we accept your claim and will refer it to the refugee board for a hearing,'" she said.
Once a case is deemed eligible, the IRB — an independent tribunal which makes decisions on refugee matters — makes the final decision on whether a person can live as a refugee in Canada, which allows them to apply to become a permanent resident. If their claim is rejected, they must leave the country.
Canada resettles Afghans
After the Canadian government agreed this month to evacuate and resettle 20,000 Afghans threatened by the Taliban, the IRCC says it is processing applications around the clock to bring them in and has waived passport and COVID-19 test requirements.
In a statement to CBC News, IRCC said delays to other refugee claims are due to the pandemic and the department having to switch to accepting claims by mail or working remotely.
"Some applicants have experienced considerable wait times, and we continue to work as efficiently as possible to reduce processing times," the IRCC said.
Goodman says she's frustrated that her clients, who have been pre-screened for previous visas, can't be looked at sooner.
"I'm confident my clients' refugee claims will ultimately be approved, however we're stuck waiting for some government movement in the meantime," she said.
The Canadian Council for Refugees says the IRCC needs to deal with the backlog as soon as possible before the uncertainty and stress further aggravates people's living situations.
'This is a future I want to have'
Settling into a new life in Canada is something Tristan desperately craves.
The 20-year-old from Syria came out as gay and gender non-binary while studying near Victoria and says he fears for his and his family's safety if he were forced to return.
"I have seen people in the streets getting assaulted physically or being called names," he said.
"The smallest thing could hurt me, could hurt my family."
CBC News is not using his real name to protect his identity.
Tristan, whose student visa expired in March this year, says his life is on hold until his application to become a refugee is found to be eligible.
"I can't work, I can't earn money, I can't really find housing," he said.
The uncertainty has taken a toll on his mental health, and he says he was diagnosed with severe depression and suffers from anxiety attacks.
He says he can't go back to Syria and is willing to wait as long as it takes for Canada to consider his application.
"The possibilities I could have by just being who I am," he said. "This is a future I want to have."