Working in Canada during the Time of COVID-19 – Refugee Applicants Caught in Dire Limbo

Canada has an Obligation to Find a Work-around to Eligibility Interview during COVID-19 and Facilitate Refugees’ Right to Work and Study in Canada

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, working in Canada has become more difficult for many Canadians. Unlike the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, which has been highlighted in the media for many months,  an important issue that has not received much media and policy attention, is the dire situation that many refugee claimants are facing because of their inability to work.

While applications for refugee status made from inside Canada are still being accepted by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the processing times for determining a claimant’s eligibility has considerably lengthened in light of the indefinite pause on in-person eligibility interviews..

The first step to obtaining refugee status in Canada is submitting the required documents to IRCC. Once submitted, claimants must wait until they are scheduled for what is called an “eligibility interview.” These interviews are held in person because claimants must sign documents in front of an IRCC agent and provide biometrics. If they pass this interview, their file will then be forwarded to the Refugee Protection Division (RPD) of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada for a determination on their refugee claim before a Board Member.

While claimants can apply for work or study permits as part of the first stage of this process, they will only be granted these permits after a successful eligibility interview and after completing a required medical exam. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of COVID-19, while medical exams are ongoing, most eligibility interviews have been postponed without a clear timeline given to claimants for when they will resume.

In the meantime, they are only able to work if they have had a valid work permit prior to their refugee application. However, many claimants end up applying for refugee status without having a valid work permit. For refugee claimants who are ready to work and need to work to support themselves and their families, the indefinite delay in receiving a work permit or study permit is undeniably stressful, especially during these difficult times. This also imposes a cost on Canada to provide social assistance to individuals who otherwise may be able to find work and support themselves.

Despite these ongoing challenges for an already vulnerable population, IRCC does not appear to have a creative workaround or solution in place for these asylum seekers who are being negatively impacted by these indefinite delays.

In order to solve this ongoing problem, IRCC must resume eligibility interviews as soon as possible while ensuring the health and safety of their employees and claimants by preparing IRCC offices with social distancing measures and access to virtual technology. IRCC can also devise a two-step approach whereby an individual can be assessed for prima facie eligibility, and if the requirements are met through a virtual interview, then work permit and study permit applications can start being processed.  At the second step, once feasible, an in-person interview can also be held and if there are any issues that arise, they can be addressed accordingly at that time.

Refugee claimants are already at a disadvantaged position when it comes to finding work, as many of them have foreign education and work experience, and they are also learning a new language and adjusting to a new environment.  They have families, along with hopes and dreams of working and contributing to Canadian society while building a better life in a safe country. They have also been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not facilitating their right to work and study has a prejudicial impact on their integration process and is also very difficult financially and psychologically.

Canada needs to ensure that it provides all the support necessary to refugees, particularly during a time of crisis, as opposed to creating further barriers and obstacles to their successful establishment in Canada.