Canadian authorities tackle visa refusal rate for African students

African students who are pursuing study opportunities in the Global North are hoping to benefit from recommendations of the Canadian Parliament, or House of Commons, about the recruitment and acceptance of international students, especially those from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Through its standing committee on citizenship and immigration, the House of Commons noted that visa refusals for African student applicants from Sub-Saharan Africa were quite high as only about 20% of students from the region obtained legal authorisation to study in Canada in 2020.

According to the committee’s report Differential Treatment in Recruitment and Acceptance Rates of Foreign Students in Quebec and in the Rest of Canada, the rejection of visa applications from African students who come from former French colonies was even higher.

“Many witnesses highlighted high refusal rates for their institutions for students from African countries with significant French-speaking populations,” stated MP Salma Zahid, the chair of the parliamentary committee, in the report that was published in May.

Highlighting the problem of high visa refusal rates for students from African countries with significant French-speaking populations, the report noted that, last year, Togo and the Central African Republic had the highest student visa application refusal rates at 87% and 86% respectively.

During the same period, other African francophone countries that had high student visa refusals included Burundi (84%), Cameroon (81%), Benin (83%), Chad (83%), Guinea (81%), Djibouti (78%), Democratic Republic of the Congo (77%), Mali (75%) and Senegal (73%).

In contrast, the committee noted that many witnesses who appeared before it spotlighted the existence of low refusal rates from other foreign student recruitment destinations such as Oceania, China and India, whereby some countries enjoyed visa approval rates as high as 95%.

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As part of the efforts to address concerns of discrimination and racism, the committee recommended to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, or the IRCC, that it should provide additional resources for immigration processing in visa offices currently in Africa and South Asia and add additional visa offices or visa application centres in the two regions. IRCC was also urged to conduct blind reviews of a sample of applications.

In another key recommendation related to visa refusals, the committee urged IRCC to collect race-based data and that offices with high refusal rates be audited by a third party.

“IRCC should conduct a bilingual study of the social history of anti-black and anti-francophone African racism in Canadian immigration to ensure mistakes are not repeated,” stated the committee.

Further, the committee recommended to the IRCC to publish the guidelines given to its officers, provide the acceptance criteria for study permits and visas and further offer more fulsome justifications to applicants for the refusal of the African students applications.

IRCC was also urged to publish on its website information about the Nigeria Student Express pilot programme and its criteria to better inform prospective international students, Canadian educational institutions and other partners in the international education sector.

More stringent income requirements

Although the recommendations made by the committee are not binding IRCC, the department that deals with all matters pertaining to immigration to Canada, the move was welcomed by Policy Shapers, a Nigerian-led advocacy initiative that roots for opportunities for African mobile students to be treated equally with their counterparts from the rest of the world.

Ebenezar Wikina, the founder and team leader of Policy Shapers told University World News that the committee on citizenship and immigration has recognised the existence of systemic and deep-seated racial discrimination against  students from African  who are seeking entry to Canadian universities.

But, whereas the IRCC says that most African students are rejected entry to Canada for not showing sufficient funds, income or other assets to enable them to pay for tuition and to maintain themselves in the country, Wikina said that was not the full story, as students from Africa were required to show proof of funds that was three times more than other foreign students.

He cited the Nigerian experience whereby visa applicants are not just required to show proof of having more than CAD$30,000 (about US$23,500) in their accounts about six months prior to making the visa application, but they are also required to sit for the International English Language Testing System, or the IELTS, a standardised proficiency language test for non-native English speakers.

English proficiency

For several years now, Policy Shapers and the African Scholars Initiative, or ASI-Canada, a charity that mentors African students in Canada, had been demanding inclusion of Nigeria and other English-speaking countries in Africa such as South Africa, Kenya and Ghana on the list whereby IELTS is not a student visa requirement in Canada or the United Kingdom.

“To ask English-speaking Africans, who mostly grew up as kids speaking their first words in the English language and have more than 10 years of basic and secondary education in the English language, to write English proficiency tests with results that expire every two years is unjust,” Wikina told University World News in an interview on August 5.

He explained that there is no African country that is listed on the United Kingdom’s Home Office list of countries that it considers to be English-speaking countries, also called “majority English-speaking countries”. It is an index that is often used by Canada’s immigration officials as a basis for rejecting visa applications of students from Africa.

In this regard, one of the key recommendations of the parliamentary committee urged IRCC to remove the English language proficiency requirement for students in the Nigerian student express programme to ensure a fairness of requirements across the board.

Presenting evidence to the parliamentary committee on 22 March this year, Dr Gideon Christian, the president of ASI-Canada and an assistant professor of artificial intelligence and law at the University of Calgary, had cited requirements of IELTS as a drawback to speeding up the processing of study permits of Nigerian students.

In his submission, Christian told the committee that Nigeria was an English-speaking country. “English is the primary language of instruction at all levels of formal education in Nigeria, from primary to the university,” said Christian.

He also clarified that most universities in Canada exempt admission applicants from Nigeria from the requirements for undertaking the English language proficiency examinations.

“But it is curious that, while an admission committee full of qualified experts in a Canadian university would review a Nigerian graduate study application, determine that the applicant is qualified for admission, and offer admission without any language proficiency condition attached, the IRCC would require such applicants to undertake a language proficiency examination in order to have their study permit applications expedited,” said Christian.

According to Wikina, the issue of proficiency in English language is increasingly becoming a tool being used to deny Africans work or study opportunities outside the continent. He said most English-speaking institutions outside Africa are now taking inference from the UK Home Office’s list of “majority English-speaking countries” when offering training or employment.

Call for case-by-case reviews

But, with the recommendations from Canada’s parliamentary committee, the agitation against racial discrimination and the requirement for proficiency in IELTS in order to obtain study permits is likely to get much louder, especially with South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana over the years achieving high scores in the EF English Proficiency Index that ranks countries based on equity and competence of skills in English.

Calling for study applications to be reviewed based on merit on a case-by-case basis, Wikina said the suggested reforms will open study opportunities for African students in Canada.

Interestingly, accusations of discrimination against African international students by the IRCC officials comes at a time that Canada is implementing Immigration Levels Plan 2022-24, that is targeting to recruit over 1.3 million permanent residents in three years to bolster talent and support humanitarian commitments.

Towards that goal, one of the recommendations of the committee to the IRCC was to “partially fund tailored settlement services for international students on their path to permanent residency as well as parallel sponsorship measures for those who want to obtain permanent residency”.

Even then, there had been no indication that most African students would like to stay in Canada much longer than their counterparts from other developing countries after completion of studies.

According to a survey conducted last year by the Canadian Bureau for International Education on foreign students’ decision-making on future plans, only 43.3% of students said they would pursue permanent residency in Canada after completing their studies, while 18.8% planned to work for up to three years and then return home.

In this regard, Professor Bell Ihua, the executive director of the Abuja-based Africa Polling Institute, a centre that conducts surveys on social research, says most African students in Canada and other countries outside the continent are driven by motivation to get a foreign degree.

With most African universities facing funding challenges and declining quality of learning, Ihua argues that many prospective university students in Africa think of a foreign degree as a sure way to escape from poverty at home or abroad.

But, as the committee pointed out, there had been disappointments and shattered dreams among many African students whose study permit applications were rejected for what appeared to be racial bias and their ethnic backgrounds.

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