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Refugee claimants forced to turn to welfare as work permits stalled in federal bureaucracy
MONTREAL -- Nelson Frederic doesn't want to be on welfare.
Frederic is one of the thousands who came to Canada from Haiti and applied for asylum. He's been waiting for his hearing for years and applied to renew his work permit last September, but hasn't heard back from the government. Without documentation, nobody will hire him.
"I applied at McDonald's, at Maxi, at the Burger King, so that's not working out," he says. "They don't even look at you as a person."
In 2017, Quebec experienced a wave of refugee claimants streaming across the border to apply for asylum in Canada.
Many of those people are still waiting for their hearings with the Canadian government. They've been waiting so long their 2-year work permits are now expiring, and many people able and willing to find work on their own are out of a job and on public assistance.
Three refugee organizations confirmed with CTV that this is becoming a significant issue for refugee claimants.
Federal government data from 2017 shows wave after wave of asylum seekers coming to Canada, reflecting international headlines: 8000 Haitians applied as political instability rattled the Caribbean nation; nearly 6000 came from Nigeria as Boko Haram increased its activities in that country; 1200 came from Venezuela as discontent with the Maduro government grew there.
Frantz Andre, who works with one of the refugee organizations, Comité d'action des personnes sans statut (CAPSS), says the lack of government action is deplorable and cases like Frederic's are becoming more frequent.
"It's outrageous; these people are coming here and looking for hope. They don't want to be on welfare; they're very proud, they want to contribute, pay their taxes, and to show that they're coming here not to take away but to provide, to give, to share," he says.
The federal department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is responsible for processing the permits, but there's no indication that the agency is addressing the problem.
"If the individual applied for a work permit extension before their initial work permit expired, they can keep working until a decision is made on the extension application. They don't have to stop working and wait for a new work permit," IRCC spokesperson Rémi Larivière wrote in a statement sent to CTV News. "With this rule in place, work permit extension applications for asylum claimants are not expedited in the same way as their initial applications. Individuals can continue to work if they apply for a work permit extension before their initial work permit expires."
But Frederic says his employer doesn't want to take the risk of employing him without papers. Employing an unauthorized worker can land a Canadian employer in jail for up to 2 years, with fines up to $50,000. Without a valid permit to prove he is legal to work, and no documentation provided by the IRCC indicating his legality, Frederic was let go.
"It's very bad, it's very stressful," he says.
Refugee organizations like Action Refugee Montreal and Solidarity Across Borders have been reaching out to employers on their clients' behalf, but many are unwilling to take them at their word.
"Most employers are not aware," Andre says. "I do write letters letting them know, but they don't want to take a chance."
Canada, and particularly Quebec, is facing a labour shortage at the moment, with some 100,000 vacant jobs. To industry advocates like Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, there's no excuse for keeping workers on welfare.
"We really encourage the government to find a way to expedite this process," he says. "If these folks have jobs and employers willing to employ them, there needs to be a way for the government to fix this backlog. There's no question that there's a shortage of general labour in Quebec and in Ontario, and we need to find a way to not have them on welfare because there's no need."
The provincial government is on the hook to pay for social assistance when willing workers like Frederic are out of a job.
All refugee claimants, like Frederic, can do is wait, squeaking by on welfare, while his work permit application is still sitting on a bureaucrat's desk.