What connects the shipwreck of a migrant boat off the coast of Greece to international students fighting for a place in Canada? The dangerous risks many are forced to take to in order to navigate around hard-to-decipher immigration systems, say some who work in the field.
And for some, that means relying on risky, unlicensed immigration consultants or “agents” tied to smuggling rings — a risk experts warn needs to be taken seriously.
Hundreds of people are missing after a smuggling boat carrying migrants to Europe sank off the coast of Western Greece on June 14. The migrants on the boat were believed to be Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis and Palestinians.
In Pakistan, a country facing an economic crisis following a devastating flood last year, authorities have arrested seven people who allegedly played key roles in a human trafficking ring that put people on the boat. Nine arrests were made in Greece as well, where a court ordered their detention in the southern city of Kalamata.
Each of those who tried to make the perilous journey to Europe — hoping for a better life — paid the smugglers between $5,000 to $8,000, according to the Associated Press.
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The role of insidious agents and consultants has also come into sharp relief in Canada, where hundreds of international students say they have fallen victim to a fake admissions letter scheme.
The students, facing deportation, had launched a protest last month. It was only after immigration minister Sean Fraser promised to put the deportations on hold that the students ended their protest.
According to the students, those facing deportation orders came to Canada in 2017 and 2018 on student permits after they were issued “fake college admission letters drafted by their immigration consultants, namely a Jalandhar-based consultant named Brijesh Mishra.”
Mishra, the consultant accused of the forgeries, has not been seen in months.
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Bikram Singh Kullewal is a member of the Naujawan Support Network, a Brampton, Ont.-based advocacy group. He said the difficulty navigating immigration and asylum is pushing vulnerable migrants into the hands of unregulated consultants and risky situations.
“When you are sick, you go to the doctor. When you need your car fixed, you go to a mechanic. When you are desperate to leave an economic crisis, you go to anyone who tells you they will get you out,” he said in Punjabi during a translated interview with Global News.
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Kullewal said uncomplicating the Canadian immigration system and offering easy pathways to permanent residency for students and foreign workers could help reduce their dependence on such agents.
When Fraser announced a task force into the alleged admissions scam, he said that the number of people trying to take advantage of Canada’s immigration system was in the “thousands” and that Ottawa would be working to tackle this issue.
But governments including Canada’s have a responsibility to do more to ensure that prospective migrants are made aware of how to spot someone unlicensed or risky, says Manan Gupta, a registered Canadian immigration consultant (RCIC) also based in Brampton.
“There is a serious lack of awareness among many migrants, especially those from rural backgrounds, about how to navigate the immigration system in many Western countries, including Canada,” Gupta says.
“You can look up any regulated and licensed Canadian consultant on the website of the College of Immigration and Citizenship (CICC), but most people don’t know that.”
But that is a tall order, Kullewal said.
“Canada’s immigration system is very overwhelming even if you speak fluent English. For people who don’t speak the language, it can feel like an impossible task. No wonder people are attracted to bad actors who know the system well.”
At times, unlicensed operators can appear to cost less than licensed consultants as well, Gupta added. But in the long run, the costs can be dire.
“Rural families in Punjab often mortgage lands and property to send their sons and daughters to Canada. This is a big draw for them. But it’s not worth it in the long term if you fall victim to a fraud scheme,” he said.
“I want young people to remember that nothing is more important than their lives.”
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