It’s 8:30 a.m. on a chilly Friday morning in Surrey, B.C., and a queue of people snakes around a strip mall in the Metro Vancouver suburb.
They’re not here for the mall’s sweet shop or the Filipino fusion restaurant. Most of them have been waiting hours for an Indian visa at the BLS International Visa Application Centre.
Arminder Bajwa is one of hundreds of Indian visa applicants who say backlogs in the system are leaving people like him in limbo as visa applications have spiked amid a drop in global travel restrictions. He’s been here since 5:30 a.m. when temperatures were near zero.
Indian visa applicants are calling for the return of an electronic visa program that allowed online applications and was in place in Canada before the pandemic, as well as more staffing to address reported processing delays across the country.
“I’ve spent like $8,000 on tickets,” Bajwa says from the queue, surrounded by dozens of others trying to keep warm. “For my sister’s marriage … that’s my sister, and I have to be there because that’s like a tradition.
“That situation, inflation and everything … $8,000,” he repeats.
But Bajwa’s passport has been with authorities inside the BLS office for over 17 days, and he’s getting desperate.
Another person in line said they had been waiting over two months — despite the Indian consulate’s stated timeline of 30 days for a visa.
Before the pandemic, applicants like Bajwa had access to an electronic visa application that was entirely virtual, a program that was brought to a halt amid travel shutdowns.
And though the program has been restored to over 156 countries, it hasn’t been restored yet to Canada, despite India’s status as the largest source of new Asian immigrants to Canada since 2016.
The Indian high commissioner-designate, Sanjay Kumar Verma, said that visa applications have spiked to dramatic levels but denied widespread delays.
But a voicemail from BLS International, to which the Indian High Commission has outsourced its visa applications, says that “processing times have been increased.”
The company did not return a request for comment. But an acknowledgement of delays is little consolation for Bajwa and others in his situation.
“The population in Surrey, Metro Vancouver, is ballooning. It’s, like, increasing day by day,” he said. “They need more offices. They need more people.”
Travel agent says e-visa should be restored
Manpreet Grewal, the manager of the My Dream Traveler agency in Mississauga, Ont., says that BLS should consider opening more offices across Canada and Ontario.
She says she’s been hearing of delays in the system for months and has even published multiple TikToks for visa applicants seeking advice.
“These days, there’s only one location in Brampton for the whole GTA,” she told CBC News in an interview.
Currently, there are nine BLS International offices across the country — the only centre that processes applications for Indian visas in Canada. They’re concentrated in the largest urban centres, even as more immigrants make their way to smaller communities. This means those who live away from urban centres either have to mail the BLS centres their documents, or make their way there in person.
Grewal, and the Indian Association of Tour Operators, have called for the e-visa program to return. The program allows those in qualifying countries to fill out the application and get an electronic travel authorization (ETA), before having their e-visa stamped on their passport at their destination.
If applicants have Canadian citizenship, even if they’re born in India, they have to get a visa to return, as India doesn’t allow dual citizenship.
“The main reason [for] the delay for the visas is because they are not opening e-visas,” she said.
High commissioner cites strained resources
The high commissioner-designate denied there were significant delays happening across the system, though he conceded there were massive increases in application volumes that had tightened resources.
“If I look at Ottawa … October 2022 [visa] submissions as compared to October 2021, submissions have increased by 605 per cent,” Verma told CBC News in an interview.
He said the comparisons were similar for Vancouver and Toronto, with respective increases of 203 and 188 per cent since last October.
Verma encouraged applicants to look at visa application timelines on the commission’s website and said that those waiting in queues at BLS offices were walk-ins without appointments.
“As far as we are concerned, we are processing the visa applications and granting the eligible applicants’ visa much, much faster than people otherwise realize,” he said.
As for the e-visa program, Verma said the program was being restored “country by country, looking at the constraints on resources.”
“There are discussions. There are considerations. There are movements in that direction. When it is finally decided by the two governments, then, of course, we’ll hear the outcome,” he said.
A request for comment from Foreign Affairs Canada was not returned by deadline.