Kept apart for years, Iranian couples decry Canada's heartbreaking immigration delays

CBC News

Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang · CBC News · Posted: Feb 13, 2023

One spouse in Canada, the other overseas — for years.

For a group of Iranian nationals, the wait to live with — let alone hug and kiss — their partners has been painfully long as they wait years for Canada to process their permanent residency (PR) applications. 

They say Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has failed them with "unreasonably long" delays and in some cases by denying their visitor visas, keeping them physically apart for years.

"They don't care about us," said Azadeh, one of the applicants. "Enough is enough.... Please do something."

This group of 55 couples banded together through social media over similar experiences with stuck applications. Several of the couples — and some outside the group seeking spousal work permits — shared with CBC News that being forced to live apart for years has caused fertility concerns and financial hardships.

Some say they're taking anti-depressants and are even discussing divorce due to strains on the marriage.

IRCC's own processing time estimator says spousal sponsorship should take about 16 months, but some couples say they've been in limbo for years.

Meanwhile, protests erupted in Iran and around the world last September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by morality police for "unsuitable attire."

Iran has been executing its own citizens as unrest continues into the new year. Iranians have been targeted and surveilled by the regime inside and outside the country — even in Canada, where CSIS confirmed ongoing investigations on "lethal threats to Canadians" from Iran. 

This is why the group says it's critical for IRCC to act quickly on their files, which they say are stuck in Turkey's Ankara visa office, and is also why CBC has agreed not to publish the surnames of the Iranian nationals interviewed for this story.

"We are afraid of going back to Iran to be with our family and spouses because of the fear of getting arrested, tortured, executed," explained Alex, who's waiting for his wife's PR application to be processed. He's in B.C., while she's in Iran. 

"It is real. It happens," Alex said.

IRCC declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement, a spokesperson said the department is "deeply concerned" about people affected by the situation in Iran, and said family reunification is a priority for the government. 

But the group's petition — a letter signed by all 110 individuals and addressed to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on Jan. 9, 2023, demanding for some reprieve or answers — was ignored.

Fraser's office, despite CBC's repeated requests to comment on this letter, did not.

The longest wait: 5 years apart

At two years and seven months, Hamidreza and his wife have the longest wait time in this group.

They've been living apart since 2018. Their first spousal application was rejected, so they reapplied in July 2020.

Through an interpreter from Kerman, Iran, Hamidreza told CBC the stress of this process has had severe health impacts for his wife, a hairstylist in Quebec. He said the mental health impacts are causing both of them to struggle in their careers.

"I can't focus on doing anything. Even financially, I've had problems. I cannot work properly," Hamidreza said in Persian.

"At the end of the chat [with my wife], the only thing that is left is the wet eyes."

Hamidreza and his wife are waiting for his permanent residency application to be approved. Hamidreza said the process has involved IRCC requesting proof of the "genuineness" of their relationship.

The process hasn't been easy for the couple this second time around. An IRCC email to Hamidreza in April 2022 questions the "genuineness of your relationship" and asked the couple to submit more proof. 

"We have been waiting for five years to get together, to be with each other. So if this is not love, what is your definition of love?" he said. "I have almost lost everything."

$30K on fertility treatments

Sonia is worried she and her husband may never have children together.

Sonia has waited two years and two months for her husband's PR application so he can join her in B.C. The couple, longtime family friends who grew up in Iran, married in October 2021, after COVID delays, and applied for his PR shortly after. 

I don't want to lose the chance of being a mother forever.- Sonia, spousal PR sponsor

Now in their 40s, the couple has spent about $30,000 at fertility clinics. They've been trying to create a viable embryo by shipping samples between B.C. and Germany, where he lives.

"When it gets to my age, at 40s, even one day is important," Sonia said.

"We want to have a kid. We want to start our life," she said. "I don't want to lose the chance of being a mother forever."

Sonia moved to Canada about a decade ago. Though she's built a successful career and life for herself here, she said it's lonely without her partner here.

"I love him and I want to be the rest of my life with him," she said. 

The thought of leaving her job, selling her house and moving overseas has crossed her mind. 

"I worked very hard.... I don't want to quit everything here and then go move," she said. "But eventually, if I need to, I have to."

Daughter 'crying all the time'

Azadeh says being separated from her husband for almost four years has had devastating impacts on their daughter.

Azadeh and her daughter, who live near Toronto, came as refugees in 2019 and received PR shortly after. Her husband lives in Tehran.

"She's really looking for her dad. And then ask me, 'Why everybody has dad? ... Mom, what happened to my dad? Did you apply for my dad?'" Azadeh said. "She start crying all the time now."

Her husband's visitor visa applications have been rejected twice during the pandemic, even with a doctor's note outlining her daughter's depression and anxiety disorder due to the separation.

Azadeh says her daughter is now seeing a psychologist.

Azadeh says she feels abandoned by the Canadian government. Nevertheless, she has a plea for IRCC officials and workers.

"Please, please do something about our applications. We need [to] have our family together," Azadeh said.

Approval rate for Iranians 90%: IRCC

IRCC declined an interview.

In an email, spokesperson Isabelle Dubois noted the department's approval rate for Iranian spouses and children seeking PR was 90 per cent in 2022.

Dubois wrote that despite delays due to COVID-19, the department implemented measures such as digitization, remote processing and remote interviews to help speed up its spousal sponsorship applications.

She said visas may be refused on a case-by-case basis.

"Family reunification is a fundamental pillar and priority," wrote Dubois. "[IRCC] is working towards processing applications for permanent residence expeditiously."

IRCC confirmed the recent earthquake in Turkey's southeast region "had no impact" on its processes, nor will it cause delays at its Ankara visa office.

Fraser's office declined an interview and did not address why he ignored the petition sent to him over a month ago, signed by all 110 Iranian applicants.