The Canadian government is telling international students they may not be able to come to Canada because of travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday’s update from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) states that students who received their introductory letter from IRCC before March 18 can travel to Canada, but only for a “non-discretionary or non-optional purpose.”
IRCC notes that while post-secondary campuses are closed, classes will continue online. Canada Border Services Agency officers will make decisions about whether a students’ purpose of travel is discretionary or not based on “individual circumstances.”
Students whose study permit application was approved after March 18 will be notified that they may not be exempt from travel restrictions. These students should not make plans to enter Canada until the government lifts travel restrictions “as they will not be allowed to travel to or enter Canada.”
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International students contributed $21.6 billion to the Canadian economy in 2018, according to the federal government and they are a major source of revenue for post-secondary institutions here.
The federal government previously introduced new measures aimed at supporting international students:
Taking steps to ensure study permits are processed quickly;
Allowing students who have applied for a study permit to count time spent pursuing online higher education toward their post-graduate work permit (PGWP) if at least 50 per cent of their program is completed in Canada;
And implementing a temporary new approval process for students who can’t submit all the necessary documentation right now.
Universities Canada president Paul Davidson said the recent new measures should be encouraging to international students, but he also wants to see an update on how travel restrictions will affect international students moving forward.
“It's a very important question not only for our sector, but for all of Canada.”
“We are hoping that very shortly that the government will clarify how and when international students will be able to return to Canada,” he told HuffPost Canada.
It could take students a few weeks to prepare to travel, so Davidson said he’s hoping international students soon get a signal that they’re welcome in Canada.
He said about a quarter of universities’ revenue comes from international students who are charged higher fees that aren’t subject to provincial regulations.
Davidson said Universities Canada, along with colleges, has been working to find approaches to allow international students to register and complete courses online and get to Canada as soon as they’re permitted to travel.
“It’s a very important question not only for our sector, but for all of Canada,” he said.
Ankit Tripathi, the international student representative for the Canadian Federation of Students, said the government’s update makes sense from a safety standpoint, and could potentially provide students financial relief by eliminating the cost of travel and living expenses.
But it could also lead to students abroad being forced to stay at home in potentially precarious family living situations, Tripathi added.
“The federal government should follow-up on this advisory with more supports to answer students’ questions about their options as well as their impacts on future decisions” to gain a PGWP or permanent residency, Tripathi said in an emailed statement to HuffPost.
“Canada should also provide more options for international students to take the semester/year off without an impact on future opportunities as well as allowing students to take part-time classes along with working in Canada,” he added.
“If you can't get here, it might make sense to delay your plans for a year ...”
Abdul Aleem Mohammed’s visa was accepted in January, and he planned to move to Canada from Hyderabad, India, in May to study at a college in Montreal in the fall. At first, he couldn’t get to Canada because of the travel restrictions and a lack of available flights. But now, despite being able to book flights, he says Air India isn’t letting students board without a “travel support letter” from their college saying that their presence is needed in Canada.
He said that students have raised concerns about working in their home countries with the time differences — for him, nine and a half hours — and the possible impact on their health if they’re working during the night. He added that he experiences frequent power outages, which could affect his ability to participate in online learning.
Before the government’s update, Evelyn Ackah, founder and managing lawyer at Ackah Business Immigration Law, told HuffPost she has seen a number of student applications denied that would be approved under normal circumstances.
She said she has been advising international students to recognize that the circumstances have changed since they applied to a Canadian institution.
“If you can’t get here, it might make sense to delay your plans for a year, and to get this COVID situation under control,” she said. “I think it’s very realistic to maybe save the stress and the money to just pause and take a year until everything gets sorted.”