A woman who fled Syria three years ago says ongoing immigration delays mean her life is at risk every day as she desperately waits to come to Canada.
Nour and her friend, Fouad, escaped from Syria to Lebanon in 2019 with hopes of coming to Canada. Fouad had serious heart problems and was waiting to come to Canada for treatment.
Nour remembers the night when Fouad sent a WhatsApp message saying he hoped his refugee application would be expedited.
"A day after that text, he died," Nour said.
"Fouad used to say he'll go to Canada and bring me there. Now, I'm just afraid that I'm not going to make it to Canada but to where he is."
CBC is using only Nour's first name to protect her safety. Nour connected with CBC News from Lebanon with the help of a translator.
The 37-year-old gay woman had submitted her refugee application to the federal government on May 25, 2020. She said the processing time was 24 months then. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's (IRCC) website, the current processing time for refugee applications from Lebanon is now 46 months long. And some immigration experts say the process seems to favour applicants in certain countries over others.
"Forty-six months is just horrible. My life is getting wasted. I'm shocked by the delay, depressed and losing hope that I'd ever leave Lebanon," Nour said.
CBC reported earlier this month that with nearly 1.8 million immigration applications in IRCC's backlog, there are ongoing delays. Federal officials attribute the backlog to the pandemic, saying ongoing international travel restrictions and limited operational capacity overseas has created barriers.
According to the IRCC, as of Dec. 15 Canada has 114,046 refugee applications — 41,619 government-assisted and 72,427 privately sponsored refugees — that are yet to be processed. The number has increased by 1,654 applications since Oct. 27.
In an email statement, IRCC said Canada has resettled more than 12,000 refugees between March 2020 and Aug. 2021.
As a privately sponsored applicant through Capital Rainbow Refuge, a group that sponsors LGBTQ refugees, Nour had hoped the process would be faster as her safety's at risk.
Safety at risk
Nour was recently harassed by a policeman who forcefully took her contact details.
"He started calling me to blackmail for sex. I took the courage to block him," she said. "But I'm afraid to walk down the street. I cannot change my house as nobody rents [to] us easily."
Nour's partner is diabetic and does not receive any medical aid in Lebanon. Consequently, her mental health is deteriorating. Nour shared those concerns with the Canadian embassy.
"Their answer was cold and almost a denial. There's no way to contact the IRCC regarding any updates," she said.
"It's frustrating but I'm hopeful that someday I'll be visible, safe and free."
Lisa Hébert, board chair at Capital Rainbow Refuge, said the group's requests to expedite Nour's case have been declined twice by IRCC.
"Canada used to expedite cases but now it seems that we've to have more than death threats. Having active attacks is almost like not quite enough," she said.
For a queer man attacked by three men in Turkey, Hébert sent in pictures of his bruises and wounds after a homophobic assault in August. She was informed the government will expedite the case, but the applicant is still there.
"He was quite suicidal after that, and hasn't gone out since then as those men are aware of his address. Canada should be responsive to vulnerable cases but we're not seeing that," she said.
Hébert said the delays are causing harm to LGBTQ refugees when they already are at risk and face threats from community or governments since they are considered "illegal as refugees."
"Inadequate and uneven processing time has been an issue for years," she said.
In an email, IRCC acknowledged the ongoing delays and said it has improved technology and digitized its operations.
"Ongoing international travel restrictions, border restrictions, limited operational capacity overseas and the inability on the part of clients to obtain documentation due to the effects of COVID-19 have created barriers within the processing continuum. This hinders IRCC's ability to finalize applications, creating delays that are outside IRCC's control," the department said in its statement.
"We know that some applicants have experienced considerable wait times with the processing of their applications, and we continue to work as hard as possible to reduce processing times."
Process remains arbitrary
Arsham Parsi, executive director of the International Railroad for Queer Refugees, said close to 60 refugees are stuck in Turkey. He said the whole process took hardly a year prior to the pandemic.
"We want to bring them to Canada before they're being killed or dying of suicide," he said.
Parsi recently withdrew two applications from IRCC after the refugees stuck in the long wait got accepted to Switzerland and Australia. He said IRCC was quick to respond to his emails around withdrawal, but did not reply to his other queries so efficiently.
"We are doing our best as advocates, but the final decision is with the authorities whom we voted into office. We hired them to do the job, but they didn't."
Canada's immigration process is often unpredictable and arbitrary, says Lou Janssen Dangzalan, an immigration lawyer in Toronto.
He said IRCC is not responding to applicants unless they are Afghan refugees.
"The telltale signs of the Afghanistan crisis were there. At the very least, a contingency plan should have been in place. Unfortunately, we were caught up in an election then," Dangzalan said.
He said the government started off on a positive tone with Operation Syrian Refugees, one of 'the largest and most successful campaigns", that saw Canada settling 25,555 Syrian refugees between Dec. 1, 2015, and the end of February 2016 according to Statistics Canada. The federal plan has brought in nearly 73,000 Syrian refugees since then.
"That being said, it looks like the government never really learned from it," he said.
Dangzalan said the government is yet to announce a concrete plan to solve the backlog and until then the delays will "endanger immigration system with Canada's credibility on the line."
Families remain separated
Waheeda Ekhlas Smith, an employment lawyer in Toronto, and her family have sponsored her five relatives who fled from Afghanistan, before the Taliban takeover, to Tajikistan.
Nine months after the refugee applications for her uncle and his family of four were submitted, she said the processing times on "IRCC website remained inaccurate." She said the website read 21 months at the time of submission, which recently increased to 29 months.
"It took them five months to assign a file number only when I got through to some compassionate IRCC officer," she said.
Smith said that even though her family members are refugees vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, all their expenses are being borne by the family here.
"I'm not hopeful. My cousins, who were in an Afghan refugee school, got pulled out. Those kids have no school right now," she said.
An Afghan refugee herself in the 1980s, Smith said the process was way simpler and straightforward then.
"Come 30 plus years later, there's no communication and transparency. There are levels of bureaucracy that we're not even aware of," she said.
Smith received an email from IRCC where it was written in bold that "contacting IRCC always takes us away from processing applications."
"Any attempts to get an update on your file means you're essentially threatened with 'it's just going to delay you more,'" she said.
She is perplexed that the same government that quickly resettled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees is struggling with Afghan refugees.
"I haven't seen my uncle since I was three years old. He cries when talking over video calls," Smith said with tears.
Doha Kharsa understands that pain firsthand.
After three years of torment inside Australia's controversial detention system for asylum-seekers, Kharsa's husband and eldest son came to Saskatoon in 2016 to be reunited with her.
"It took maybe around a year for me to come here. I was a special case. It wasn't safe for a mother of five minor children. We were lucky to get that fast or we could have waited for four years," she said.
Now, the Saskatoon mother is about to submit a refugee application to get her brother and his family here to reunite with their son Adnan who arrived in May with other members of Kharsa's family.
Kharsa's mother, brother, sister and young nephew came to Saskatoon from Malaysia, where they escaped to years earlier from Syria, after almost five years of process.
The nine-year-old has not seen his parents for five years now.
"Adnan was disappointed and sad when he came here because he thought that once he's here, a month later, he'll meet his family," she said.
"He prays all the time and whenever we give him money, he says he'll save it to send flight tickets to his parents. We try to make him hopeful by saying they'll be here soon."
But Kharsa knows that it might take more than three years for Adnan's parents, stuck in Turkey, to arrive. She said it can take up to a year to even get the date for the first round of interviews with IRCC.
"To keep hoping is the only way for us to survive and go through this hardship with Adnan and his family," she said.