‘Racist’ officials blamed for high Africa student visa refusals

The African Scholars Initiative, a charity mentoring bright African students who intend to pursue higher education in Canada, has joined several other stakeholders concerned about a high study visa refusal rate for applicants from Africa. It has accused some immigration officials of racism, especially against students from Nigeria.

The claim of racism against officials at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) – the department responsible for immigration services – was made by Dr Gideon Christian, president of the African Scholars Initiative (ASI-Canada) and an assistant professor of artificial intelligence and law at the University of Calgary.

“For many years, scholars and academics of African descent in Canada and stakeholders have sought answers or reasons for the high study visa refusal rates from Canadian visa offices in Africa,” Christian told the Canadian House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration, regarding recruitment and acceptance rates of foreign students, on 22 March 2022.

In his submission about bias and discrimination against Nigerian and African students in general, Christian relied heavily on the findings of a report that the IRCC commissioned to gain insight into the impacts and nature of racism witnessed or experienced within the department.

The report, titled IRCC Anti-Racism Employee Focus Groups and released in October last year, stated that there were racial biases in the application of IRCC programmes and client services.

According to the report, Nigerians were negatively stereotyped as corrupt and untrustworthy among other immigrant groups, and they were often cited as the key examples.

But the IRCC has rejected accusations of racism and discrimination in its immigration policies, asserting that each application is assessed on its own merit. However, the IRCC admitted that it was fighting against racism, bias, discrimination and all forms of inequity within the workplace.

Jeffrey MacDonald, spokesperson for the IRCC, said the department had established an anti-racism task force to ensure that diversity was driving change.

“We are actively fighting racism and will continue to work tirelessly to foster a culture of inclusion, diversity and respect,” said MacDonald.

Large discrepancies

Stressing discrimination against Nigerian students, Christian told the committee of large discrepancies in study visa applications in two IRCC study permit programmes that expedite study permit processing for students applying to study in tertiary education institutions in Canada.

He stated that whereas applicants in the Student Direct Stream – a process that covers mostly students from developing countries outside Africa – are required to produce a guaranteed investment certificate of CA$10,000 (US$7,790) for the first year of their studies in Canada, their counterparts applying through the Nigerian Student Express are asked for a bank statement showing the existence of an equivalent of CA$30,000 for at least six months.

According to the African Scholars Initiative, it is unfair for an applicant from Nigeria to have to show proof of funds three times greater than the funds required from applicants from the Student Direct Stream, which includes students from Antigua, Brazil, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, India and Pakistan. Other countries in the group are Peru, Philippines, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Trinidad and Vietnam.

“Yet, even after overcoming this higher burden of proof, most of the applications from Nigeria still get refused,” Christian told the committee in his submission.

Study International, an online platform that provides information on international education recruitment, confirms that students from African countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are facing higher Canadian study visa refusal rates compared to other countries globally.

Quoting Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada, Study International said high refusal rates among priority markets, notably in Africa, need to be addressed urgently if Canada is to become a major destination for international students.

Shocking refusal rates for Africans

Datasets from ASI-Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants (CAPIC) for the period between 2015 and 2020 have indicated low approval rates for students from African countries.

In this context, although Nigeria was among the top 10 source countries for Canadian study visas, it had the lowest approval rate of 12% in 2020 as compared to Japan and South Korea, which had 97% and 95% approval rates respectively.

“Nigerians submit over 4% of all study permits Canada receives, trailing only China and India,” stated CAPIC in its study titled Submission on Nigerian Study Permit Declining Approval Rates, 2015-2020.

In 2020, South Africa had the highest Canadian study visa approval rate in Africa at 55%, then Egypt at 35%, Sudan at 33%, Tanzania at 33%, Côte d’Ivoire at 31% and Kenya at 26%. Morocco and Senegal, the only two African countries in the Student Direct Stream, had a visa approval rate of 37% and 19% respectively, while many other countries in Africa had a visa refusal rate of over 80%.

So far, there are indicators that high refusal rates for visa applications for African students are likely to persist, even as the IRCC progressively continues to improve client services, unless the study permit requirements for international students are relaxed.

New rules published early this year indicate that an applicant will have to satisfy an immigration officer that s/he will leave Canada at the end of studies, as well as show proof of ability to pay tuition fees and accommodation during the stay in Canada.

Students will also be required to show a letter of acceptance from an education institution, be of good health, law abiding, have no record of criminal activity and not be a security risk.

In this regard, the perception of the immigration officials on the ability of students from Africa to meet those conditions will be critical towards reducing study visa refusals.

As Christian observed, some students from Nigeria had their applications rejected even after they had shown they could pay tuition fees, as well as meet their other financial commitments in Canada.

The solution probably lies in the need for attitude change. In Nigeria and other African countries, it is believed that a degree from Europe, North America or Australia can guarantee a holder entry into the growing middle class in Sub-Saharan Africa.