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An UNHCR worker directs displaced Afghan women into an UNHCR distribution centre to receive aid supply on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 28, 2021.ZOHRA BENSEMRA/Reuters

We are a fickle species by nature, which is why the time to act on resettling Afghan refugees was back before another occasion of mass human suffering would capture the world’s attention. Seven months ago, we were captivated and horrified by images of Afghan citizens desperately clinging to planes while trying to evacuate Kabul to escape Taliban rule. This week, we are captivated and horrified by images of pregnant Ukrainian women clinging to their bellies as they evacuate a maternity hospital bombed in Mariupol.

But even if the world’s focus is now elsewhere, the suffering in Afghanistan endures. Despite vain promises from the Taliban that the rights of girls and women would be protected under its new regime, girls have been largely barred from attending secondary school and women’s access to work has been heavily restricted. Earlier this year, a group of Afghan women’s rights activists disappeared after participating in a protest in Kabul. (They were released about three weeks later, though the Taliban denied ever detaining them.)

Afghanistan is literally starving in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign aid, which previously accounted for roughly 75 per cent of public spending. The economic situation is exacerbated by a freeze on government assets and sanctions on the Taliban regime, which together have left more than half the population – over 22 million people – facing extreme hunger. Some are selling their kidneys to support their families. And all the while, the Taliban’s pursuit of those who worked with NATO forces or the former Afghan government continues.

Afghan refugees stuck in Ukraine with no exit in sight

Former Afghan translator flees Ukraine to safety: ‘This is the second war. I hope there will not be a third’

Canada’s obligation to evacuate and resettle Afghan citizens – in particular, those who worked with our military during its operation in Afghanistan – is still there, even though the world now faces another massive refugee crisis. The Canadian government committed back in the fall to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada, but as of March 9, it had resettled only 8,680 people. Nearly 15,000 applications have been filed under a program for Afghans who assisted the Government of Canada, and though more than 10,000 applications have been approved, less than half of those who qualify have arrived in Canada.

Former Canadian military translator Jawed Haqmal fills out forms at the Migration Office in Kyiv on Sept. 1, 2021.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Among those in limbo are individuals like Jawed Haqmal, who worked as a translator for the Canadian military in Afghanistan and was evacuated along with his family by Ukrainian special forces back in the summer. Mr. Haqmal and his family have now been forced to flee war again, escaping to Poland while he waits for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to approve his application.

The IRCC, however, is currently working overtime processing new immigration streams for Ukrainians fleeing the war, which includes the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel – a stream open to an unlimited number of Ukrainian nationals that allows them to bypass some normal visa requirements to come to Canada temporarily. No such program is available to Afghan nationals.

Evacuating Afghans to Canada has been, and continues to be, more complicated than it is to do the same for Ukrainians (more than 7,400 of whom have arrived since Jan. 1). According to Polish President Andrzej Duda, Canada was in touch with Poland about managing Ukrainian refugees even before Russia invaded, and the two countries are currently discussing the logistics of evacuation flights.

Afghans hoping to come to Canada under its humanitarian program, meanwhile, are largely on their own: They need to leave the country in order to be designated a refugee under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and escaping Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is difficult and dangerous. Those who do manage to escape typically end up in Pakistan or Iran, where they are forced to wait on word from Canada’s overburdened immigration bureaucracy.

The justification for the lack of an expedited immigration stream for Afghans may be that the move to Canada will likely be permanent. Ukrainians, in the best-case scenario, will have something to return home to when this war is over and the country is rebuilt, whereas Afghans fleeing Taliban rule will probably never want to return. Another reason may be that Ukraine is currently an active war zone, whereas Afghanistan is merely in the persecution and suffering stage of regime-change aftermath.

Yet, Canada managed to expedite the relocation of Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016, bringing 25,000 here to reside permanently within just 100 days. And Canada’s promise to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees was not contingent on any particular status on the ground, nor was it only valid on the condition that no other group would be in need of emergency assistance.

Canada cannot save the world, but it can fulfill the commitments it made back when the fallout of NATO’s withdrawal was top of mind. The urgency of the situation in Afghanistan hasn’t faded, even if our attention has.

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