This is the first of two pieces First Policy Response is publishing this week in collaboration with the Ryerson Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and its Pandemic Borders webinar series. You can see the second piece here.

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic border closures have had a substantial impact on economies worldwide. The closures have also had a personal impact on foreigners who were meant to arrive in Canada for the purpose of contributing to the country’s economic growth, and who are now stuck in limbo. Canada placed a hold on the processing of all applications early in the pandemic that only expired on June 9, and there is no telling how long it will take to clear the backlog. It is estimated that the annual immigration target of 370,000 for 2020 will fall short by at least 170,000 new permanent residents. This has presented many challenges for employers in the country, and for those who were otherwise on their way to begin a new life and new career here in Canada.

Ahmet and Amanda are just two of many high-skilled temporary foreign workers who have suddenly been deemed non-essential, and are left wondering about their options. Their stories are inspired by real cases, but their names and other identifying details have been changed.

Ahmet is an electrical engineer from Turkey who, up until 2016, taught at a university in Istanbul. His university was shut down in the summer of 2016 after the unsuccessful military coup against the Erdogan government. Most faculty members, including Ahmet, were detained, and had their passports withheld and their office papers and books confiscated. After two years with no job – which he jokingly describes as a forced “sabbatical leave” – no pay and no passport, he was offered a professorial fellowship in Stockholm, and moved to Sweden with his spouse and child. While in Sweden, he was offered a university position in Canada. He submitted his paperwork in January, but its processing got stuck in the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, the university in Sweden has extended his fellowship until the end of August and his landlady has yet to find a new tenant. With the delay in processing work permits, though, the end of August seems unbelievably close. It is not only a matter of income – without a job in Sweden, Ahmet and his family will have no papers either.

Then there is Amanda, a recent graduate with a PhD in law from a well-known British university. She had been top of her class throughout her studies, and during the last two years of her PhD work, took up a job in her native Lagos, Nigeria, at an international think-tank. She successfully applied for a post-doctoral fellowship in Vancouver and was ready to start on May 1 before COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Her job at the think-tank has already ended and it is totally uncertain how much longer she will have to wait for her papers to come through – processing times for a work permit from Nigeria were already a lengthy 16 weeks before the pandemic. The university in Vancouver has agreed to hold her fellowship until she can get there, and her husband still has his job as a sales manager in Lagos, so they can hold on for a few more months until they find out if Canada will be a tangible option. But without answers soon, she might have to start her job hunt all over again.

The pandemic has brought a sudden and abrupt change in the priorities of the Canadian immigration system, prioritizing those migrants employed in clearly “essential” sectors such as agriculture, health and caregiving, but stranding immigrant workers like Ahmet and Amanda who were once deemed the most qualified and in-demand in the Canadian labour market. Many of these individuals have sold their homes, quit their jobs, packed their bags and uprooted their families, expecting to come to Canada on work permits.

On March 21, the Canadian government announced that seasonal agricultural workers, fish and seafood workers, caregivers and all other temporary foreign workers providing essential services would be exempt from restrictions placed on individuals travelling to Canada. But there is little clarity on what kinds of workers are deemed “essential”, and therefore eligible to immigrate despite the border closure. Canada’s high-skilled temporary foreign workers include those who work in knowledge-based, professional class and trades professions – sectors that are still operating despite the lockdown. The National Occupational Classification system is of little help, as it is not used in determining which foreign workers can enter the country.

While many employers have introduced work-from-home policies, this privilege cannot be afforded to foreign workers. Employers, even if they wanted to, cannot have non-essential high-skilled foreign workers work remotely. Even with an employment approval letter, and with their paperwork already processed, individuals cannot receive their work permit unless they physically enter Canada. Without a work permit, their employer cannot process payment for work. Even if employers seek workarounds, there are severe consequences for organizations that do not respect labour laws.

So, what’s next? For individuals who had a job offer and seemingly a bright future in Canada in a highly skilled position, travel has been halted until further notice and there is no way to receive a work permit and start working remotely. Individuals in the process of applying for a work permit remain in limbo as all visa application centres – private companies that have formal contracts with the Government of Canada located around the world – have either temporarily closed or are operating with limited hours. Furthermore, individuals who have been instructed to give biometric information as part of their work permit application may face difficulty in doing so, despite the extension of the required biometrics submission period from 30 to 90 days, as many of the offices are currently closed.

While extra caution in international travel and self-quarantine appear justified, one wonders whether the Canadian innovative spirit cannot find an intermediate solution for these non-essential, high-skilled foreign workers with job offers, stuck in limbo, ready to leave their countries but not able to enter Canada under these circumstances.

One option might be an electronic provisional work permit and provisional Social Identification Number that can be used until international travel normalizes. If the job can be done remotely for a short period – and that would likely include many of these highly skilled jobs in fields like engineering, IT, communications, management and education – Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada could also develop a temporary, remote work permit that would allow for employment to start remotely until the employee can physically enter Canada. Such arrangements could start with a three-month duration, renewable once. When international travel gradually normalizes, these permits would expire with a month’s notice in which the remote permit holder would be required to enter Canada and start their job in person.

In the past three months, the Canadian government has shown it is willing and able to quickly adapt its policies to the new and unexpected challenges posed by COVID-19. It should do the same for the high-skilled temporary foreign workers left in limbo by this crisis, in order to provide relief to the workers and families concerned, help employers with their planning, and prevent Canada from losing some of the best international talent.


Lucia Nalbandian is a master’s student in the Public Policy and Administration Program at Ryerson University. Anna Triandafyllidou is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University.