Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good morning. My name is Sharon Chomyn, and I'm the immigration program manager at the Canadian High Commission in London, England. I'm also the area director overseeing the visa offices in London, Moscow, Warsaw, Kiev, Vienna, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Accra, and Islamabad.
With me today are my colleagues in Mexico City and Washington, who will provide brief comments on their own that focus on their own areas of responsibility.
It's my pleasure to have the opportunity to address the committee and to give the perspective of the public service employees overseas who have the responsibility for processing family reunification applications, among others, in a timely and responsible fashion. I will begin by giving you some general context about our network and the processing of family class applications.
Canada has a network of 51 processing offices overseas. These offices are responsible for assessing applications from foreign nationals to come to Canada on a temporary or permanent basis. Depending upon which office we are referring to, there are particular local challenges in addition to those commonly shared.
The cases we will focus on today are a minority of the overall applications received. The department uses its global case management system to expedite processing by sending the lowest-risk applications for processing to our centralized processing centres in Mississauga and Ottawa. Currently, these processing centres manage as much as 10% of the overseas family-class caseload. This allows our missions to better manage their caseloads and to concentrate more resources on complex cases or those that require local expertise.
The department continues to work hard to ensure that applications for legitimate, bona fide family class applicants are processed as efficiently and in as timely a manner as possible in order to reunite applicants with their sponsors in Canada.
Most simple and non-contentious applications are approved rapidly. Unlike applications in the economic categories, family class applicants need only establish their relationship to an approved sponsor and demonstrate to the officer that they are not inadmissible to Canada. In most cases, globally speaking, the genuineness of the relationship is not in question. In many countries, there are very reliable means to prove family relationships. In general, we are able to process cases from such countries confidently, given the reliability of the vital statistics documents.
As we were asked to talk about challenges we experience, we will focus our opening remarks on the various challenges we confront in processing the more complex cases.
In much of the world, documentation is extremely unreliable. State-issued documents can be improperly obtained, and registration is decentralized or essentially non-existent. These limitations require officers to use other means to determine whether applicants are in fact related to, or in a genuine relationship with, their sponsors. Ongoing training in fraudulent documents and close liaison with our risk assessment officers help immensely in the official assessment of these cases.
When no other conclusive evidence can be obtained, applicants and sponsors may be asked to submit to DNA testing in order to establish a claimed relationship. The big picture is that the goal of our officers is to approve as many applications as possible as efficiently as possible based on the documents before them. That said, they are also very well trained in the latest fraud trends, with a view to remaining vigilant to potential fraud that might undermine the integrity of our immigration system or the security of Canada.
I would like to say a few words specifically related to the reunification of spouses. We are aware that this is an issue of specific concern to the committee and that it is in the public interest to reunite spouses as quickly as possible. The vast majority of cases are genuine, and we are pleased to bring people together.
With such cases, the most common integrity concern is that of the genuineness of the relationship. Marriage fraud is a very real problem, more common in some parts of the world, but by no means absent elsewhere. This is where the local knowledge of our locally engaged staff proves to be invaluable, and our programs benefit from this contextual knowledge to aid in detecting divergences from typical cultural and/or social practices.
Awareness of the cultural norms of a particular society helps our officers facilitate the processing of the genuine cases while alerting them to situations that might not be quite right. In this regard, officers may request that applicants provide further documents or attend an interview if the relationship does not appear to be genuine or if the officers harbour doubts about the circumstances. The goal of all of these additional requests is to alleviate the concerns the officers may have and allow them to approve the application. These requests are always made after careful consideration of the information already on file, given our understanding that providing additional documentation or travelling to attend an interview may cause additional inconvenience or cost to the applicant.
Our department employs various means to mitigate the risk posed by fraud. We share intelligence with like-minded countries and, in some cases, work with the host countries. We verify information provided in applications as resources permit, and ongoing quality assurance activities serve to confirm that the level of risk being accepted is reasonable. Our goal is always to process applications efficiently and respectfully of the applicants; and to ensure, to the extent possible, that low-risk cases are processed quickly and that the more complex cases are approached systematically and equitably.
In spite of the various challenges, between 47,000 and 50,000 spouses, partners, and dependent children have been issued permanent resident visas every year since 2011. In 2016, we will admit even more, 60,000, in order to help reduce processing times. The vast majority of these cases are entirely legitimate and we are pleased to facilitate this family reunification.
Finally, as I am aware that the committee has a particular interest in the family reunification movement from certain areas of the region I oversee, I will speak briefly to the particular challenges that we deal with in my region of responsibility. The London visa office processes family class applications for residents of Pakistan, as well as more complex cases from elsewhere in our territory. I will illustrate what I mean by “complex” with examples from the area that I oversee.
A complex case from the U.K. or the Nordic countries may involve criminal convictions or custody issues. Our officers take custody issues very seriously as these cases may result in the permanent separation of a child from one parent. Accordingly, these may take longer to process than the departmental standard. For applications processed in our Abu Dhabi office, complex cases may include, among other factors, elements of proxy marriage, minor-aged spouses, polygamous relationships, or where the intention to actually reside in Canada is not clear. Another concern of which we must remain aware is the possibility that a marriage is not consensual. A small, but disturbing number of vulnerable applicants, or sponsors, are forced into a marriage and the subsequent sponsorship process. These situations pose a unique challenge, as often the individual is threatened with harm and will be hesitant to divulge the true circumstances.
For applications processed at our Accra office, complex cases could involve marriages of convenience, polygamy, children born outside of primary relationships, late registration of birth, and previous adverse immigration history on the part of the applicant. London took charge of the family reunification program from Pakistan in February 2014, primarily due to the security situation in that country. Our office has extensive experience in processing Pakistani cases in both the family class and the economic categories.
We have added resources to ensure that these applications would in fact be processed more efficiently in London than in Islamabad. I'm pleased to report that our office was successful in reducing the processing times of these cases to within the departmental standard.
Complexities inherent in this caseload include concerns related to the validity of marriages, non-consensual marriages, irregularities in the issuance of civil documentation, and security concerns. Where such concerns exist, applicants may be asked to provide further documentation or to attend an in-person interview. London-based officers travel to Islamabad four to five times per year for this purpose.
Finally, we also maintain a focus on applications from parents and grandparents, as we understand that bringing the family together in Canada can provide more stability and support for the family members already in Canada. Currently London is processing applications for parents and grandparents promptly upon receipt, and all applications sent to London from the case processing centre in Mississauga in 2016 are in active process or have been finalized.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. My colleagues will each provide their own brief remarks, following which we will be pleased to answer any questions you might have.