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How does India's visa office suspension affect Canadian travellers?

TORONTO — The suspension of Indian visa services for Canadians this week has prompted uncertainty among many who had hoped to travel to India in the near future.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. The suspension of Indian visa services for Canadians this week has prompted uncertainty among many who had hoped to travel to India in the near future.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO — The suspension of Indian visa services for Canadians this week has prompted uncertainty among many who had hoped to travel to India in the near future.

The news came Thursday as India's visa processing centre in Canada halted services for Canadian citizens, with India saying it anticipates Ottawa will reduce its diplomatic presence in the country. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament earlier in the week there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the June killing of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

"Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 Sept. Indian visa services have been suspended [until] further notice," stated the BLS Indian Visa Application Center in Canada on its website.

Here's what the visa centre closure could mean for India's sizable diaspora community in Canada, which is now caught in the middle of rising diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

What services does the centre offer?

With offices in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Brampton, Ont., Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Surrey, B.C., BLS is the agency that processes visa requests for India, including for entry, tourist, student and employment visas. 

Its services are divided into three main categories: passports, temporary visas and Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards. Those eligible for OCI cards are persons of Indian origin who formerly held an Indian passport, along with their children and spouses.

It's essentially a "lifetime visa for India," the office states online. Cardholders are "granted multiple entry, multi-purpose, lifelong visa for visiting" the country.

But it cautions that OCI status is "not to be misconstrued as 'dual citizenship,'" as India forbids its citizens from holding citizenship of a foreign country simultaneously.

Under normal circumstances, it usually takes about two to three months for the office to process OCI applications, while single entry visas would only take about a week to approve, said immigration consultant Pragati Sharma.

It is not clear how many Canadians hold OCI status, but Indian media reports suggest there were roughly six million cardholders worldwide as of 2020.

Are current OCI or visa holders affected by the office's closure?

The suspension won't affect Canadian citizens who already hold OCI cards, or those whose single entry visas have already been processed, said Sharma, who operates Westlink Immigration in Winnipeg.

However, any Canadian who planned on travelling to India but had not yet been granted an OCI or visa is out of luck for now, she said. That includes those who already applied but had not yet seen their submission processed.

"There are lots of calls I was getting this week because of the situation. People are worried how this is going to impact their applications, those who have already submitted those applications," Sharma said.

"There is a rift between two countries and obviously they have taken some steps, so this is definitely going to impact Canadians."

How impactful could this be?

With Canada home to around 1.4 million residents of Indian descent, according to the 2021 census, travel between the countries is common.

In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth-largest group, according to India's Bureau of Immigration. Meanwhile, Canada remains an attractive destination for Indians, especially students. In 2022, nearly 300,000 Indians were pursuing higher education in Canada.

"This, of course, is going to affect those who are travelling in the next few months," Vinay Kanetkar, director of the University of Guelph's Canada India Research Centre for Learning and Engagement, said in an email.

The restrictions come at a time when many Indian expats often make the trip back home. Sharma noted that there are a series of Indian festivals which begin in October, including Diwali the following month.

"People tend to go back during these festival seasons and they like to visit their family. That would be a big issue," she said.

"They have to cancel those plans. Obviously, there will be uncertainty during this period."

Almost one in five recent Canadian immigrants were born in India, making it the leading country of birth for recent immigration to Canada, Statistics Canada said last year.

What about those travelling from India to Canada?

Thus far, it appears India's suspension of services will have no effect on those seeking to travel to Canada, according to Sharma. That is despite India having urged caution for its citizens planning to visit Canada, citing security risks.

"I got so many calls this week, those people who have submitted an application for a study permit, work permit, like all those things, how this is going to impact them," she said.

"There is nothing as such I'm aware of, to be very frank."

— With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press