How US-Canada Border Tragedy is Part of Growing Irregular Migration From India

India has the largest global emigrant population, and these numbers may rise sharply post-COVID.

Indian Diaspora
5 min read
How US-Canada Border Tragedy is Part of Growing Irregular Migration From India

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(This article was originally published on 26 January, and is being reposted after the High Commission of India, Ottawa, on 27/28 January, confirmed the identity of the family that died on the US-Canada border.)

On 19 January, US officials stopped a van that had two undocumented foreign nationals from India, about a kilometre south of the US-Canada border, a spot where similar crossings had occurred thrice in the past 40 days.

They were being transported by a man from Florida, US.

As they were being taken in for questioning, the officials saw a group of five people walking in the direction of the spot where the van was intercepted.

They had irregularly crossed the border from Canada, after walking for an astounding 11 hours on a freezing night, and were expecting to be picked up by someone.

A few hours later, Canadian officials found the bodies of two adults, a teenager, and an infant in a field in Manitoba, metres from the US border. All were from India, and likely died from the freezing weather. Subsequently, the Florida resident was arrested on charges of human smuggling.

PM Justin Trudeau said, "It was an absolutely mind-blowing story. It's so tragic to see a family die like that, victims of human traffickers ... and of people who took advantage of their desire to build a better life."


Three Types of Irregular Migration From India

Amongst the group of seven who were intercepted by US officials, one of them was on a fraudulent student visa in Canada. The individual had obtained the visa after paying a significant amount of money, with the intent to ultimately cross over to the US and go to his uncle’s residence in Chicago.

Irregular migration from India to Canada falls under three broad themes.

Fraudulent Student Visas

First is individuals who obtain fraudulent student visas, like the individual who was part of this group.

Students often pay large sums of money to agents in India, who get them admitted in a private college with meagre academic facilities. For instance, Brampton in Ontario has 60 private colleges, many located in malls and plazas.

In 2020, the province of Quebec suspended 10 private colleges for questionable recruitment practices in India.

Often, the student is admitted in a study program that has no connection with their prior education credentials.

Given the higher fees that international students are charged, for-profit private colleges are often eager to admit international students, regardless of fit.

These students often struggle to integrate into the Canadian job market, as their inadequate Canadian education leaves them ill-prepared for a productive career.

Work-Related Migration

A second category of irregular migration is work permit-related.

A common modus operandi is obtaining a fraudulent work permit sponsored by a Canadian company by paying a hefty amount upfront, and recurring amounts thereafter.

There is a covert agreement that once the individual is in Canada, they will start looking for a 'real' job, and reimburse the company for payroll expenses, often along with a profit margin for the company.

Data on how frequently this method is used is difficult to obtain for obvious reasons, but there has been a recent increase in the rejection rates of both student and work permit visas from India, due to concerns around fraud.

Usually, when such application are rejected by the visa officer, the applicant loses a significant amount of money to the agent, in the range of Rs 10-15 lakh rupees, or higher.

Fraudulent Spousal PR

A third category of irregular migration is fraudulent spousal permanent residency (PR).

Since express entry (PR) criteria have become more stringent in the past two years, many people from India now do not meet criteria for PR, even though they previously did.

A few of them resort to spousal PR, where they marry a Canadian permanent resident on paper for three years, with an understanding upfront that they will live separately and file for divorce after three years.

There is an informal marriage market that appears to have emerged for this fraudulent pathway, with sums as high as Rs 5 crore being offered to prospective Canadian spouses.

As a result, spousal PR is now subjected to increased scrutiny by Canadian immigration officials, with the process now taking a full year or more, and often involving detailed submissions such as entire logs of WhatsApp chats and honeymoon pictures.

Impact of the Pandemic: What the Data Says

According to the World Migration Report 2022, at 1.8 crore, India has the largest emigrant population in the world.

Since 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has maintained data on migrant deaths, after 360 migrants died in a boat tragedy off the coast of Italy in 2013.

Between 2014-2019, 5,000 to 8,000 deaths were recorded annually.

While the Mediterranean Sea has seen the highest fraction of these deaths, there have been prior deaths and injuries (such as amputations due to frostbite) along the US-Canada border too.

Unsafe crossings from US to Canada increased after Donald Trump was elected US President in 2016, and have declined over the past year. US-bound undocumented migrants from Canada are far fewer, though Indian nationals likely make a substantial fraction of them.

In 2020, global migrant deaths dropped to 3,900 – the lowest since 2014, likely due to mobility restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mobility restrictions and other COVID-19-related disruptions to society have also reduced migration overall, with 2 million fewer migrants globally in 2021 than expected from pre-pandemic long-term trends.

In Canada, these disruptions have substantially increased the backlog of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), with applications for permanent residency being particularly affected.

Processing times for many applicant categories have risen to 2-3 years.

Given the constricted options in regular migration, many prospective immigrants may turn to irregular immigration routes, particularly as COVID related mobility restrictions are lifted.


The Way Ahead: Canada's Immigration Goals & the Debt Owed to Low-Income Countries

Looking towards the future, the disproportionate financial impact of the pandemic on low- and middle-income countries such as India may lead to a further increase in economic migrants and asylum seekers in the near future.

By one estimate, the odds of a person in India being financially impacted by the pandemic is 17 times the odds in Canada. The wealthiest one-third of Indians suffered a greater financial impact than the poorest one-third in Canada. This financial disparity will likely increase migration post-COVID, on a background of slowly increasing effects of climate change.

High-Income countries such as Canada, and more so the US, need to recognise these disproportionate impacts, and ensure that their immigration policies reflect the new post-COVID global dynamic.

These countries also need to recognise the climate debt they owe to low- and middle-income countries, which only increases every year they fail to effectively mitigate their emissions, as climate change will likely continue to push migrant numbers upwards from these countries.

Increasing the number of immigrants to Canada is a stated priority of the current Liberal government, but the numbers show that Canada’s immigrant needs are not being met.

In the year ending June 2021, Canada’s population growth rate was estimated at 0.5 percent, less than half the growth from a year earlier (1.2 percent), and the lowest population growth rate since the First World War.

Alongside, labour shortages continue to plague businesses in Canada and the US. In this light, focusing on strategies to increase regular migration has to be a cornerstone of the struggle to tame irregular migration.

This will lead to increased prosperity in Canada, along with increased safety, equity, and justice, globally.

(Nidhi Nagori is a manager with an asset management company in Toronto, Canada and is active on immigration issues. She can be reached at nidhinagori29 on Instagram. Aditya Khetan is a cardiologist based in Hamilton, Canada and is interested in global environmental change and its effects on planetary health. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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