Long delays at Nairobi: are we being fair?

Refugees in Africa routinely wait years for Canadian immigration officials to process their applications to come to Canada.

While they wait, refugees are struggling to survive in desperate and dangerous situations, even though they have sponsors in Canada ready to support them here.

Refugees from Africa pamphlet

The long delays also affect families of refugees. Children are waiting years to be reunited with their parents in Canada.  A five year wait for a child is a lifetime!

Sadly Canada’s processing of refugees is too slow in many parts of the world, but it is slowest of all in Africa.

We need to do better.  We need to be fair to all refugees.


Ernestine (not her real name) was recognized as a refugee in Canada in early 2008. She had been forced to leave behind all but one of her children, cared for by various family friends (her husband had been killed previously).

Because they live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the applications for the children were handled by the Nairobi visa office.

Ernestine’s children finally arrived in December 2010, nearly three years after she was accepted as a refugee.

Left: Ernestine is finally reunited with her children. 


Jean-Claude arrived in Canada in 2001, and was finally accepted (on humanitarian grounds) in March 2007.  He is still waiting to be reunited with his wife and two young children who remain in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Three years after Jean-Claude was accepted in Canada, in April 2010, the Nairobi office finally began processing his family’s applications.  The office decided that the family must undergo DNA testing.  This means further delays.

Photo (left) credit: Settlement Arts/Anna Hill

Amina – more than 6 years of waiting

Amina fled Ethiopia to Kenya as a refugee.  More than 6 years ago Amina and her family were sponsored by a group in Canada.  She waited nearly 4 years for an interview, during which time her husband died of malaria. She then waited more than two years after the interview before hearing that she was accepted by Canada.

Amina and her three children were in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.  

“I am living in intolerable conditions in a refugee camp in search of peace and security, hoping that I will be able to raise my children in a safe environment one day. Considering the conditions that I described above, could you please help me in moving my case forward toward finalizing my immigration process.”


Amina - finally in Canada, after nearly 7 years wait

Finally, some good news! In late December 2010, Amina and her children arrived in Toronto where they were met by their sponsors.  After nearly 7 years of waiting for resettlement in intolerable conditions in a refugee camp, she and her children are now building a new home in Canada.

Sabontu and her children

Sabontu, aged 28, lives with her two children in the bedroom of a friend’s apartment in Nairobi. A member of the Oromo ethnic group, she fled Ethiopia after being imprisoned, tortured and threatened that she and her children would be killed. In 2008 she was sponsored by a Canadian group. She has been told to expect to that processing at Nairobi will take approximately 48 months, and that she is forbidden from making inquiries of the Canadian embassy in the meantime.

Photo credit: Paige Morrow

Catherine and Mary

Mary and Catherine, aged 12 and 16, have been waiting to be reunited with their mother in Canada since she was accepted as a refugee in April 2009. The girls are in Uganda, where they are looked after temporarily by their aunt. They have no father and they miss their mother. In November 2010, the Nairobi visa office said that their files would be reviewed in 2011. Refugee family reunification cases at Nairobi regularly take more than 2 years to process.

Nairobi: severely overburdened

Processing is particularly slow at the Nairobi office.

Canada’s visa office in Nairobi (Kenya) covers 18 countries, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda – countries from which large numbers of refugees come.

The Nairobi office is by far the slowest in the world for privately sponsored refugees.

Half the cases of privately sponsored refugees in Nairobi take more than 3 YEARS (38 months, compared to 19 months globally).

Reuniting refugee families

Nairobi is the slowest visa office for applications for family reunification from refugees accepted in Canada.

Half the cases of refugee dependants processed by Nairobi take more than 23 months (compared to 12 months globally).

This means that children in some parts of Africa routinely wait more than two years to be reunited with their parents, after their parents have already been accepted as refugees in Canada.

Impacts of Long Delays

The extremely long processing times have multiple and profound impacts on the children, women and men applying, as well as on others involved.

  • Refugees are not protected
  • Children are kept separated from their parents for years
  • Sponsors lose motivation


Working towards a solution?

The Canadian government has recently acknowledged that the Nairobi visa office needs more staff to handle the many, many cases it is responsible for.

We do not know whether the extra staff will be enough to significantly reduce the serious delays in Nairobi.

Since 2009 there was a marginal improvement for privately sponsored refugees, but delays for refugee families have gone UP.

There are also longer than average delays at most other offices in Africa too.

We need fair treatment for African refugees and their families.

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