Unlocking Economic Opportunities for skilled refugees: Navigating Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot


Authored by Kelly O’Connor and Yameena Ansari, Canadian Immigration Lawyers, Ansari Immigration Law.

It seems like every month, there is a new crisis that causes people to flee their homes. According to UNHCR, as of mid-2023, there were 110 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. As immigration and refugee lawyers, we know that humanitarian options for people to come to Canada are limited. Between 2015 and 2023, Canada welcomed 277,730 refugees through its refugee resettlement programs, including via private sponsorship, an average of just over 30,000 per year. Meanwhile, Canada aims to welcome over 400,000 new permanent residents per year.

In this context, the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) is a beacon of hope. The EMPP combines refugee and economic pathways, making it an excellent option for high-skilled refugees and other displaced people to immigrate to Canada. We applaud Canada for introducing this program and for pledging to make it permanent. However, despite the program’s noble intentions, several challenges in its implementation subvert its overarching goals.

1) The pathway is not widely publicized

Ansari Immigration Law became familiarized with the EMPP in 2023 in order to help one of our clients in Gaza. As we researched the program we realized that there is limited awareness of the EMPP among lawyers and consultants, except for a few organizations that are designated as trusted partners of the program.

This lack of awareness of the program among lawyers and consultants results in the underutilization of the program, as evidenced by spots remaining unclaimed at the end of 2023. To combat the lack of program awareness, the Immigration Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), could host EMPP information sessions for members of the immigration bar and refugee-serving organizations. As lawyers, we can also share the word among our colleagues.

2) The EMPP cap was not reached in 2023, leaving spots on the table for vulnerable refugees

The EMPP is divided into the Regional EMPP and the Federal EMPP, while the Federal EMPP Is further divided into two streams: the job offer stream and the non-job offer stream. The non-job offer stream is capped, while the job offer stream has no cap. In late 2023 we tried to research whether there were still spots available under the non-job offer stream and found that IRCC does not publish this information. In order to find out, we had to reach out directly to the trusted partner organizations. Through this, we learned that the cap is only 150 spots and that the cap was most likely not reached in 2023.

Given the low cap and the number of displaced people in the world, we were shocked to learn that spots go untaken in this program. In addition, we shouldn’t have to rely on word of mouth to learn whether the cap has been reached or not. If we, as immigration lawyers, have to rely on rumours to learn how many spots are left, how could a refugee outside of Canada possibly complete this kind of application on their own?

To remedy this lack of transparency, IRCC should publish a running count of the number of spots remaining in each EMPP stream on the EMPP application guide. This accessibility to information will make the program more usable for authorized representatives and EMPP candidates.

3) Barriers to providing supporting documentation

The EMPP aims to remove some barriers that would prevent displaced persons from completing a traditional PR application. Application and biometric fees are waived, as are police certificates. For the Federal EMPP job-offer stream, the educational credential assessment (ECA) requirement is waived as well and candidates can take out a loan to access settlement funds.

However, in our experience, this flexibility is not enough, and barriers remain in place for applicants. For example, proof of language proficiency is still required, and potential applicants in situations of displacement may not be able to travel to a recognized testing centre or afford the testing fees. For the non-job-offer stream of the Federal EMPP, applicants must still obtain ECAs, which require universities to mail transcripts to a designated organization. For many displaced applicants, their alma mater may be in the middle of a war zone or may have been destroyed. Or, for refugees, a state-run university could even be an arm of the agent of persecution. As a result, those who need this program the most are least able to access it.

The status quo is for lawyers and candidates (if they can figure it out) to make humanitarian and compassionate arguments for each required document that they’re unable to obtain. Not only do these arguments drive up legal fees, they also delay application processing times. Instead, on the document checklist, IRCC could indicate that certain required documents can be substituted with others (and provide examples of substitutable documents). IRCC could also group documents under “mandatory” and “optional,” explaining that “optional documents” don’t need to be provided if there are compelling humanitarian reasons that the applicant can’t obtain them.

4) EMPP candidates are still rejected for excessive demand on health services

Canada assesses potential immigrants for medical admissibility due to excessive demand on health services, with the exception of refugees. However, IRCC does not exempt EMPP applicants from this requirement, even though many of them are recognized refugees. To make the EMPP consistent with refugee law, IRCC should eliminate “excessive demand on health services” as a ground of inadmissibility.

Empowering Newcomers: The Promise of EMPP

Beyond its logistical inefficiencies, the EMPP embodies Canada’s broader commitment to inclusivity and diversity. The program is full of promise: by welcoming skilled refugees and displaced individuals, the program not only addresses labour shortages but also furthers Canada’s humanitarian goals.

For immigration lawyers, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the EMPP can help them provide this option to clients who may have no other pathway to Canada. By leveraging the program’s various pathways, legal practitioners can empower individuals to embark on transformative journeys toward economic mobility and societal integration. Let us continue to champion this program, while advocating for its improvement, ensuring that individuals fleeing crises have the opportunity to thrive in Canada.

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