Higher refusal rates are having detrimental impacts on the international student recruitment efforts in addition to potentially damaging Canada’s reputation as welcoming place to study, they warned.

Speaking to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Larissa Bezo, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Bureau for International Education said that since 2016, more than 500,000 qualified students had had visa applications rejected.

High refusal rates are a problem that has increased in recent years and “is growing”, particularly prevalent for applicants from African and Francophone Africa, she said.

“Each rejection letter is not only personally devastating for the student who have successfully qualified for admission to a Canadian institution, each rejection also arguably represents a failure of process, a waste of resources for the student and for the institution,” she said.

“Higher refusal rates have a direct impact on our recruitment efforts”

“[It’s also] a loss of opportunity for the community where the student planned to study, and fewer chances to increase the people-to-people [connections] that come through education, to promote Canada’s long-term global engagement and future prosperity.”

High visa refusal rates among priority markets, particularly in Francophone Africa, is an “urgent challenge we need to address”, president of Universities Canada Paul Davidson said.

While average approval rates for Canada’s largest international student source countries is around 80%, with some reaching 95%, students from Africa face the highest refusal rates, he indicated.

“In 2019, the visa approval rates for undergraduate students from Morocco and Senegal – two of our priority countries for Francophone student recruitment – was 55% and 20%, respectively,” Davidson said.

Statistics from 2019 suggested that three in four applications from African students were rejected, and more recently African education agents have alleged bias over low Canadian permits approval rates.

“Higher refusal rates have a direct impact on our recruitment efforts and on Canada’s brand as a welcoming place to study and build a life,” Davidson suggested, adding that a “collaborate effort” was needed to tackle the issue.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations said that “fundamental changes” are needed, including an increase in IRCC resources.

“International students of both official languages face many other barriers when applying for study permits, the process continues to be extremely onerous for any young adult unfamiliar with the Canadian immigration system to understand,” said chair Christian Fotang.

The country must be “mindful that these failures of process do not end up being interpreted by potential international student candidates as failures of respect”, Bezo noted. “The reputational risks for Canada brand are significant.”

Refusal rates are high in some target countries despite the aim of diversifying markets in the country’s international education strategy, she highlighted, a point also emphasised by Francis Brown, director of international at Fédération des cégeps.

There are inconsistencies between the visa denials and other government initiatives, he said. Québec for example invests close to $50 million promoting the province to international students and on scholarships for them.

“We believe it is essential that the processing of study permits be equitable, fair and transparent for all individuals, regardless of their country, language or level of education,” he told the committee.

The reasons for the “troubling trend” among African countries is a “mystery”, according to immigration lawyer at LJD Law, Lou Janssen Dangzalan.

However, he suggested that the fact that visas are not processed in-country – with the majority from the region being processed in Dakar or Dar es Salaam – could have unintended consequences.

In-country processing could mean “decision makers are more attuned to the realities on the ground”, while inter-African racism may also pose a problem, Dangzalan suggested.

“African and Global South applicants have greater barriers to improving their cases, higher documentary requirements, and higher rates of refusal,” Wei William Tao, immigration lawyer at Heron Law Offices and co-founder of the Arenous Foundation, highlighted.

“Refusals are rendered on obscure financial grounds or prejudiced assumptions”

“Refusals are rendered on obscure financial grounds or prejudiced assumptions that applicants will not return to their home countries after their studies.”

IRCC’s move to AI and the introduction of the Excel-based Chinook processing tool in March 2018 “threatens to further codify, make less transparent and subject to even less scrutiny the biases and flaws of our human-created foundation”, he continued.

“The system will have the greatest impact on applicants from Africa and the Global South. The stories of suicide, financial harm and students unable to cope with Canadian immigration requirements will worsen if we are not proactive,” Tao warned.

Witnesses also said it was unclear whether Chinook is the reason for refusal rates increasing, asking for IRCC to release more data. The problem with increased refusal rates goes beyond African applicants. The study permit refusal rate for India increased from 34% in 2018 to 57% in 2020. Others have pointed to India, Mexico, Colombia where the number of refusals have also peaked.

“The recent growth in denial rates is causing us to question the use of automated application processing systems such as the Chinook system,” Brown added.

IRCC has been approached for comment.

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