Almost half the husbands and wives in southern China and western Africa who want to join their spouses in Canada are refused, government documents show, a situation MP Olivia Chow calls cruel and arbitrary.
That’s in sharp to contrast to other places, such as Taiwan, where just 3 per cent of spouses who apply to be reunited with their partners in Canada are rejected, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada statistics from its visa offices around the world.
"We find this cruel and unfair and it needs to be changed," said Chow, the NDP immigration critic who yesterday released the government’s spousal sponsorship numbers after a formal written request.
"I don’t know a lot of marriages that could handle the separation," she said. "If you fall in love with someone in an African country, God help you."
That Canada makes it tough for some couples to be together is no surprise to Khalid Nabbie, a Markham engineer who has two little girls. He has spent a year scaling a mountain of bureaucracy, amassing an application file two inches thick in which he has had to give details of his relationship, such as when he met his wife, Dixie Ann.
"The system encourages you not to tell the truth," says a frustrated Nabbie, who has been apart from Dixie-Anne, who lives in Trinidad, since last year.
"I know three people who came here on (visitor’s) visas and applied here. It takes longer, but at least they’re together."
When Nabbie applied to sponsor his wife, he did not realize that out-of-country applicants are not allowed to visit Canada while their request is under consideration.
The refusal rate for Hong Kong – which also serves Guangdong, Fujian and Hainan in southern China – was 48 per cent last year, the figures reveal. From the Accra office, which serves the West African countries of Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the rate was 46 per cent.
Sydney’s rejection rate was 5 per cent while Buffalo’s was 5 per cent. When asked about the discrepancies in the rejection rates, Citizenship and Immigration Canada did not respond.
Other high rates were recorded from Port-au-Prince, Haiti (34 per cent), and Port of Spain, Trinidad (33 per cent).
In many rejected cases, Canadian officials suspect that the marriage is fraudulent, explained immigration lawyer Elizabeth Long, who deals frequently with Canada’s Hong Kong visa office.
Besides facing a high refusal rate, people applying through the Hong Kong and Accra offices also generally wait much longer for an answer, the numbers show. Doing the math, Chow figures the Accra office completes about one case per working day, and it typically takes 20 months for an application to make its way through.
If there is a rejection and appeal, Long said, the process can take four or five years.
And applicants from Hong Kong in many cases are interviewed by phone rather than in person, Long said.
"This is a major concern for the integrity of the process," she said. "The best way to determine credibility is to look someone in the eye."
Applications made at the Nairobi office, which handles central Africa, also take 20 to 23 months, longer than they did two years ago.
Although Dixie Ann Nabbie’s application has been approved in Canada, it still needs approval from the Canadian visa office in Port of Spain and that’s not guaranteed.
The Nabbies married in Trinidad eight years ago and are raising two girls, Safiya, 2, and Soraya, 6. Khalid, born and raised in Winnipeg, returned to Canada last August and applied to sponsor Dixie Ann.
Two months ago, Khalid brought the girls here because of a terrifying rise in crime and child kidnappings on the Caribbean island.
"It’s so easy to find out what is genuine and what is not. A bank can do it for a credit card – why can’t Canada?" Nabbie asked. "This is very hard on a marriage. I went down three times in March before the girls came. We were on the phone last night for two hours."
The Nabbies’ application file is full of wedding and birthday photos, as well as transcripts of interviews in which he had to recite the details of their first date, how he met his wife and the birthdates of his in-laws.
The visa offices that handle the most spousal-reunification requests are in China (Beijing and Hong Kong, 5,749 in 2008); India (5,788); Pakistan (2,427); and the Philippines (2,222).
The Beijing office (with applications handled by a private company on contract) has a refusal rate of about 20 per cent. New Delhi’s is 14 per cent; Islamabad’s 15 per cent; and Manila’s 9 per cent.
The difference between the Hong Kong and Beijing figures baffles Chow: "I don’t see why there would be a higher level of fraud in one part of China from another."
Conversely, Taipei’s refusal rate is one of the lowest in the world, at just 3 per cent of the 171 applications handled in 2008.