Some international students looking to attend post-secondary schools in Canada, and who had already started online learning with them, say they've been waiting months for Ottawa to approve their study permits, putting their education and lives on hold.
"I have no words to express my feeling. I can't even tell," said Ravneet Kaur, who lives in Punjab in India. "You see we are suffering financially and there is emotional damage also because we have invested our emotions as well as our money."
Kaur was accepted to St. Clair College's events management program and applied for a study permit in July 2021. She paid for and was able to take one semester of online courses last fall at the Windsor, Ont., school, which had adapted to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, Kaur had hoped her study permit would be approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) so she could attend the winter semester in person. Online classes are no longer available now that schools have returned to in-person learning after many pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Now, her studies are on hold and she said she faces losing the time and effort she's already put into her course if she isn't permitted to attend school in Canada.
"We are in a dilemma. What we can do in this situation, we can't register ourselves for other courses here also, and we cannot focus our personal life and as well as the career life," said Kaur.
"We are not in the situation that we can do something for ourselves. We are just being stuck."
CBC News spoke to several other students from India who have been waiting since last summer and the fall to receive their Canadian study permits.
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"I never thought I'd waste so much time just to reach Canada. It's been so long, it's been six months, and I feel sometimes like it's a complete waste," said Sidh Sharma, 20.
Sharma, who lives in New Dehli, applied to St. Clair's business marketing program in November 2021 and is still awaiting a study permit.
"It is a depressing situation as well. My family is also advising me that if they are not, you know, they are not working upon your application, you should change the country," he said. "I was like, no, I like Canadian people, I love the culture, a lot of religions and it is just an inspiration by being diverse. So I like the country. I don't want to just drop my application."
Like Kaur, Sharma was able to complete one semester of online learning, but said his second semester is in jeopardy because it is not offered in September, when he hopes his permit will be approved.
"The college, the staff, the teachers, they are very sweet, very helpful," said Sharma. "It's just that the applications are not getting processed. My file is in review I don't know what kind of review is going on with IRCC."
St. Clair College is among many schools affected by the immigration backlog. The college does offer refunds to students who do not get a study visa approved.
In an emailed statement, a school spokesperson said that in January 2022, about 800 St. Clair international students began studying online without a study permit. Now, about 90 of those 800 students are still waiting.
Immigration backlog surges to 2 million
Students aren't the only ones awaiting acceptance into Canada, as the immigration backlog has surged to roughly two million applications.
The IRCC declined an interview with CBC News, but in an emailed statement said the pandemic, travel and border restrictions, and limited operational capacity overseas have all contributed to processing delays outside the agency's control.
"We do understand the frustration for anyone hoping to begin their studies in Canada when their application takes longer than expected," a spokesperson said in an email.
IRCC said the federal government has made some progress, increasing study permits by 32 per cent in 2021 by issuing about 446,300. In 2020, IRCC issued about 25,000 permits and about 401,000 in 2019.
From January to March this year, the agency processed about 136,000 applications with more than half from Indian nationals.
"Current study permit processing times are 11 weeks, which means that we are getting back on track for processing and ensuring students are able to get their study permits in time to begin their studies," said the spokesperson.
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Immigration lawyer Eddie Kadri does not represent Kaur or Sharma, but said he has many clients in similar situations. Kadri said the federal application system is broken and will only get worse in the coming years.
"This is a problem, we're right in the middle of it, it's not getting better tomorrow or the day after," said Kadri.
"Understanding the system is dysfunctional, the system is teetering on being broken and it needs new ideas, new life injected into it, but most importantly, needs technology to help us out of this backlog that we now find ourselves in."
Kadri said IRCC is incredibly overworked and understaffed, and trying to prioritize refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan, leaving many international students on the back burner.
"It's a tragic situation all around, all across the board. Students, I really feel sorry for because they're a huge part of what we want to do here with our immigration programs," he said.
"We attract the best, the brightest to come and study here, and then we hope that they use that opportunity and cultivate it into a permanent residence application."
Many international students become entrepreneurs who begin businesses in Canada after their studies are completed, which means jobs for Canadians, said Kadri.
"Entrepreneurs from all around the world that want to come here, that have money, lots of funds that can start businesses right away and employ Canadians — they're ready, willing and able to do it, and their processing time almost doubled just in the last month," he said.
"They all are in the same boat now and so this is where Canada's missing the bigger picture here."
Students have few options
Unfortunately for students, there are few options moving forward, according to Kadri, who recommends they stay in close contact with their school or an immigration lawyer if they have one.
"This is a situation they're going to have to be patient, and they're going to have to wait this process out and see what what developments happen in the next weeks and months ahead," said Kadri.
Both Kaur and Sharma hope they can continue their studies in Canada to better themselves. Both say they are part of social media groups and chats with dozens of others in the same situations as them.
"We can see that there are many students who are waiting for their visa applications, like the files are just in bulk," said Sharma. "They are just piling up and piling up and students are not getting the chance to even visit their college."
Sharma said he and others are deferring their studies, leaving them in limbo as to when they'll finish their courses.
"I want to only say that I am in like bad emotional trauma," said Kaur, who worries she will have to drop out of her course.
She added that "we are the students that want to learn something. That's why we want them to come there [to Canada. There is no other reason behind that. I have achieved so many things here also, but I want to grow myself."