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Refugee, undocumented health-care workers demand access to permanent resident program

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OTTAWA — Refugee claimants and undocumented health-care workers are demanding they be allowed to apply for a government program that would grant them permanent status in Canada.

The temporary resident to permanent resident pathway program was announced in April as a way to keep skilled essential workers in the country, with a focus on retaining 20,000 hospital and long-term care workers.

While the government has already received the maximum number of applications for recent university graduates and other essential workers, there have been few applicants accepted to the health-care stream.

The program is set to close on Nov. 5 and has so far accepted only 5,421 applications.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change says that’s because refugees with pending claims and undocumented people are barred from applying and many health-care occupations are excluded.

"I felt humiliated when the eligibility requirement excluded me," said Fasanya Kolade, a Nigerian refugee and developmental support worker in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Kolade works primarily with seniors and adults with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities, and said he pulled 65-hour weeks throughout the pandemic to care for his patients.

Despite meeting most of the criteria, he could not apply.

"The only criteria that excluded me was just that I am a refugee claimant," he said in an online press conference Wednesday.

The program is only open to workers with temporary status in Canada, so undocumented people with work permits orthose with asylum claims still outstandingcannot apply.

The program also requires applicants to meet language requirements, and have recent experience in an approved health-care occupation.

Those requirements can also limit eligibility for people who don't have time to take the proper language tests, the Migrant Workers Alliance said.

The federal government launched a similar pathway program specifically for health-care workers with pending or failed refugee claims late last year, which closed to applications on Aug. 31.

Now with nearly 15,000 spots for temporary residents set to expire in just two weeks, the alliance is calling for the criteria to be expanded.

"Changing these rules, ensuring access for migrants, refugee claimants, undocumented people without economic, occupational restrictions and language restrictions is a no-brainer," said Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

"Otherwise these spots will just evaporate."

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the new pathway program is innovative, and the size, speed and scope are unprecedented.

"As with previous programs we will evaluate its findings, take what we’ve learned and apply it going forward," said Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Mendicino, in a statement Wednesday.

He also pointed to the Guardian Angels program launched last year, which offered a unique pathway for undocumented asylum seekers who’ve contributed to Canada’s fight against the pandemic in hospitals and long-term care homes.

"These bold initiatives represent a paradigm shift in our immigration system — one that is more inclusive than ever before," Cohen said.

Several people without temporary status have applied to the pathway, hoping the criteria would be amended, but have been denied.

"When I first heard of the health worker pathway I knew God had finally heard, not only my cries, but also other people in my situation," said Jane, a Ugandan refugee and personal support worker in Hamilton, Ont. Her full name has been protected because of her lack of immigration status.

She fled her country after leaving an abusive and homophobic relationship and was disowned by her family when they learned she was a lesbian.

She applied for the pathway program with the help of a lawyer and waited, hoping the criteria would be expanded to include people with failed refugee claims, but she was denied.

There are many people with similar stories, said Florence, a Ugandan asylum seeker who works in a Toronto residential home for young adults with complex developmental and physical disabilities. Her full name has also been protected.

She was denied because she had filed an asylum claim in the United States.

"Our hands are tied up. I cannot get a steady permit to pursue my dreams," Florence said Wednesday. "I know there are very many of us like me who need papers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press