An Indian student’s death following a ‘violent assault’ in Canada’s Mississauga city has shed focus on the precarity of international students in the North American nation, unraveling the alarming exploitation and abuse.
In July, a carjacking incident led to the death of 24-year-old Gurvinder Nath, who was working in a pizzeria to support his education. Nath came to Canada in 2021 to study business management and worked for a local pizza shop, making deliveries to pay his way through school.
Upon his death, the lack of financial resources compelled his friends to start a fund-raising campaign to help dispatch his body to his native place. In times of emergencies like these, foreign students in Canada rely on crowdfunding to send the deceased bodies to their native places for final rites.
As per reports, there has been a rise in cardiac arrests among students who are struggling with mental health issues that sometimes compelled them to commit suicide in Canada. In 2022, the country recorded more than 30 Indian student deaths. The Canadian government, however, has failed to keep track on the total number.
As many as 2,26,450 Indian students came to Canada last year for higher education, making India the top source of international students entering the country.
‘Canada has become a prison for us’
In 2019, Chaman Singh Batth arrived in Canada after receiving an offer from Humber College through his agent Brijesh Mishra of Education and Migration Services in Jalandhar, Punjab.
After traveling nearly 11,000 km and landing in Toronto, agent Mishra called him to withdraw his admission citing unavailability of seats and guaranteed refund of fees. Although he withdrew and went on to pursue his studies in a college in Montreal, Batth received a deportation order four years later when he applied for a work permit.
“After receiving the exclusion letter I was utterly shocked. When my family contacted agent Mishra, after a long wait, he told them that the letter was sent to us by mistake.” Batth said it wasn’t the case.
As many as 700 international students who come mostly from Punjab were duped by agent Mishra last year. Most of them received deportation orders. “When we received exclusion letters, we saw that the agent submitted our student visa applications on our behalf without our knowledge,” Batth said.
With the help of Naujawan Support Network (NSN) and rights groups, the students staged a sit-in protest outside the Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA) office in Mississauga in June.
“It was a difficult period for us. We were just 15 people who initiated the protest under a tent. We continued regardless of pollution due to wildfires, torrential downpours and heat but as the awareness spread on social media, protesters grew and the demonstration went on for 18 days until the government halted our deportations,” Batth continued.
The decision was made after the immigration minister Simon Fraser released a press statement. The ministry announced a task force to investigate individual cases: “The government of Canada focuses on identifying those who are responsible for the fraudulent activity and not penalizing those who may have been affected by fraud.”
Despite the announcement, Batth said, the CBSA continues to work on the deportations. “Why are we bearing the brunt of IRCC’s (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) mistake?,” he asks. “When the immigration officials could not figure out the fault, how can we?”
“It has been four years since I have been home. But I won’t be able to travel to India unless their (CBSA) investigations are complete. Canada has become a prison for us,” he lamented.
International student exploited
In August, the Northern College withdrew admissions of nearly 500 international students due to over-enrolment. The students who had their classes scheduled to begin in September received an email from the college citing the revocation of their admissions.
Jaspreet Singh, president of the International Sikh Association and member of the World Sikh Organisation said in an interview with CBC Toronto that, “the system is exploiting students,” and the same issue arises every year in several Canadian institutions.
In reply, Northern College stated, “the school gives out more acceptance letters than it can accommodate under the assumption that some of the applicants will have their visas denied.”
In 2022, another Canadian institute, Alpha College of Business and Technology also suspended enrolments of hundreds of students.
Students fear that exploitation is deepening. The unregulated international tuition for Ontario higher education has significantly increased more than the domestic students in recent years. Foreign students work long hours including on weekends and holidays for the minimum wage of CAD 15.50 or less, to pay for their education and daily expenses.
Yet employers often refuse to pay wages to students.
Simranjeet Kaur, a student who arrived in Canada in 2017 and worked briefly with a transportation company, is owed around $7,000 for four months of work by her employer. Although she registered a complaint under Canada’s Federal Labor Program, she has been waiting for the investigation to complete for more than a year now.
According to the data from the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Finance, several employers in Ontario province failed to pay approximately $9 million in owed wages to their employees in the fiscal year 2021-22. Although the ministry recognized unpaid wages as an issue, Joban Kaur, an activist with NSN said, “the ministry has been highly inactive in the past and has failed to implement the required measures to counter the problem.”