Refugees facing delays in working and supporting families due to ‘pointless’ mistakes on work permits
Unlike the Canadian passport, the Eritrean passport lists the first name followed by the last, leading to errors on work permits that employers can’t look past. “We are lost, we don’t know who to contact anymore or what to say.”
Eritrean refugees to Canada are going without valid work permits — in some cases for months — because their passports don’t follow the Canadian format.
Unlike the Canadian passport, which lists a person’s last name followed by their first name on two separate lines, the Eritrean passport lists the first name followed by the last on one line. This is leading to work permits being issued with the names in the wrong order — last as first and first as last.
The invalid permits are leaving refugees unable to provide for their families.
“I couldn’t work, I couldn’t help myself and my family,” said Abduselam Aman, a refugee from Eritrea who applied for a work permit for himself and his wife in March 2017, two months after they arrived in Canada.
“My wife still doesn’t have her permit. We are lost, we don’t know who to contact anymore or what to say.”
Aman and his wife, Munira Abdulkeni, received their work permits with their names switched around two months after applying — a mistake most employers will not look past.
They immediately requested that Immigration Canada correct their permits. After another two-month wait, Aman got his back — this time with the name correctly displayed — but his wife’s gender on the new permit was wrong. The couple sent the permit back again.
Six weeks later, the work permit came back again — with a spelling error.
To this date, roughly a year after they first applied, Abdulkeni does not have a valid work permit.
Aman and his wife, now settled in Toronto, are two of dozens of refugee claimants or protected persons (people who have been granted refugee status by the Canadian government) the Star knows of who have received work permits with name errors.
To get a social insurance number, a refugee claimant or protected person must have a valid work permit. The S.I.N. is required to receive certain benefits and services, such as child tax benefits, from the government.
When applying for a work permit, refugee claimants and protected persons must submit supporting documents (usually their passport, if they have one) and their refugee claimant document.
The refugee claimant document is often the only Canadian document an asylum seeker has during their first few months in the country.
Because it’s usually obtained in person at the border, the first and last names are clearly and correctly stated on this document, said Mohamed Edris, president of the East York Eritrean Association.
However, “when an Eritrean refugee applies for a work permit and submits their passport (with their application), more often than not the work permit comes back wrong,” Edris said. Last year, he said, he dealt with 40 such cases.
Paul VanderVennen, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, called the situation “very frustrating.”
“The work permit inevitably comes with the names in the wrong order, as they take them from the passport,” VanderVennen said. He said he has tried various ways to bring this to the attention of immigration officials, “but it falls on deaf ears.”
“It’s so pointless and it’s so obvious,” he said. “They (immigration officials) will fix the error eventually, but they won’t do it the first time.”
In his efforts to address the problem, VanderVennen, who dealt with five such cases last year, said he tried to be forthcoming with the government.
Instead of uploading the passport copy, he said, he tried uploading an explanation noting that “we have a passport, but I don’t want to send you a copy because then you will write the name backwards.”
Andrew Restrepo, a former program manager at Adam House refugee reception centre in Toronto, said it isn’t proper for employers to hire someone with an incorrect work permit.
“It is kind, but it is negligent,” he said.
He said he has noticed that about 80 per cent of the Eritreans for whom he has applied for work or study permits, “the names are switched around when it comes back,” Restrepo said. “It hinders a lot of Eritreans from acquiring employment.”
A spokesperson said Immigration Canada does not keep track of how often mistakes are made regarding names and spelling on work permits, adding that issues can be brought forward and amended by “well-trained” officers on a case-by-case basis.
When asked how its officers are instructed to process applications from people with passports that don’t follow the Canadian format, spokeswoman Faith St-John wrote: “IRCC establishes program delivery instructions to provide officers with appropriate guidance on how to identify and record the name of an individual in our systems.”
She added that “the standards IRCC officers use for the format of the name conforms with the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN specialized agency.”
Eritrea, in East Africa, is one of the top five countries of origin for refugees coming to Canada. Between January and September 2017, 848 people fleeing widespread human rights abuses in Eritrea arrived at the Canadian border seeking asylum.
A spokesman for the Eritrean consulate in Toronto, Samuel Igbu, told the Star there is “no plan to change the Eritrean passport format anytime soon.”
“Furthermore, I don’t see any problem identifying their first name to the last name at all,” Igbu said in an email. “With that in mind, when applying for work permit there should be a clear instruction given to the right party.”
Igbu noted that Eritrea is not the only country that formats names differently than Canada does.
Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Arghavan Gerami agreed. Some countries have only one name on passports, some have multiple names and others have the last names and first names in different orders, Gerami noted.
“There are so many communities and people from different countries coming to Canada and could face the problem.”
Osman Abdullrazzaq, a refugee claimant from Eritrea, said that his work permit came back with his first and last names switched around when he applied in September 2016. While he waited for his work permit to be amended, he felt anxious and disappointed, he said.
“I had to live with the feeling that my kids are going to school every day and I am sitting at home not going to work,” said Abdullrazzaq, who received his amended work permit six weeks later.
“What kind of example would I give to my kids? How was I going to tell them to work hard to study hard? For me this was a big disappointment.”
East York Eritrean Association president Edris sent a letter in June 2017 to Ahmed Hussen, the federal immigration minister, to press his department to address the issue. The problem, he said, is not only affecting refugees in Toronto, but across the country.
Along with others, Edris is asking Immigration Canada to issue work permits based on the refugee claimant document, which clearly identifies the two names, rather than the Eritrean passport.
In response to the letter, an Immigration Canada spokesperson said that an amendment can be submitted for any “mistake.”
“I have noted your observations regarding the issuance of refugee claimant documents, issued by border service officers, and how these documents differ from the information contained on Eritrean passports,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to Edris in June 2017. “I have therefore taken the liberty of forwarding a copy of your correspondence to the appropriate departmental officials for their review and information.”
“It’s happening far too often in our communities,” Edris said. “We appreciate the Canadian government’s help for everything, but the solution for this is very simple and we need this to stop so people can build their lives.”