Rachel Pulfer is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.
The holidays are upon us. And as Canadians engage in a buying frenzy, many are also turning their minds to causes and communities that need help. At this time, I ask you to think of Afghanistan.
During Canada’s 12-year involvement in Afghanistan, beginning in late 2001, our military and news media worked with Afghan journalists and fixers. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on Aug. 15, these Afghan lives have been in extreme danger owing to their support of a foreign government and open criticism of the Taliban.
Many Afghans have been forced to go into hiding. And with the current freeze on their central bank reserves, Afghans are finding it difficult to access money. The World Food Programme estimates that 95 per cent of Afghan households will need food assistance to get through the winter.
Working since August with a network of concerned Canadian journalists, Journalists for Human Rights has steadily removed Afghan journalists, human-rights defenders and their families from this terrifying situation. We’ve also partnered with the Veterans Transition Network, Aman Lara, and Global Affairs Canada. Each day, we navigate the real-life dangers and logistical difficulties created by the Taliban, while helping Afghans navigate the bureaucratic maze to secure spaces for onward travel to Canada.
The good news is that Canadians are in a unique position to help and make a real-life positive impact for Afghans in their hour of need. We’ve seen this first-hand within JHR’s own community of partners and support. At the start of the crisis, JHR put together a list of 450 high-risk individuals, prioritizing those with a connection to Canada. With the help of Canadians, JHR has legally moved 289 to relative safety in third countries; 70 of them have since safely made it to Canada. But 161 remain behind in Afghanistan. The veterans groups represent many thousands more Afghans who are in danger because of their service. We must not abandon them.
The Government of Canada has already shown leadership: a major commitment to resettle 40,000 Afghans under a special humanitarian program. (For comparison, that’s the same number as the spaces made available by the entire continent of Europe.) Yet the number of Afghans that have actually arrived in Canada is only 3,500. Reasons for the slow pace include the extreme difficulty of determining eligibility, the bureaucratic fog of visa processing, and the challenge of ensuring a safe departure.
Unfortunately, Afghans don’t have the luxury of time. Evacuees share experiences of being actively hunted down. Their loved ones are tortured for information about their whereabouts, even killed.
Once out of their home country, refugees cannot “apply” to countries for resettlement. They must be referred, ordinarily by a UN agency. Refugee referral can take years. This represents a huge waste of human talent and time, as refugees languish in third countries.
Useful policy options exist that Canada can deploy to fast-track the referral process. Many have suggested a repeat of our approach to the Syrian crisis. At that time, Canada worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to declare all Syrians outside of Syria as refugees, and refer them on to Canada within a 100-day period. Canadians stepped up in droves to support the government’s initiative, housing Syrian families in their own homes where necessary. The initiative paired public funds with private sponsorship.
The outpouring of support for the work of JHR and our veteran partners indicates that Canadians are prepared to do the same for Afghans. JHR supports this approach, with one important modification.
Grounded in research from legal experts looking to adapt the 70-year-old system of refugee resettlement to the complex needs of today, JHR is proposing that the federal government make the network of NGOs and veterans groups doing this evacuation work part of the referral strategy. The NGOs and veterans can then work with Canadian sponsorship agreement holder organizations, companies, private citizens and philanthropists to help facilitate a powerful, blended public-private initiative.
By empowering the NGO network, the government harnesses the capacity of its members and knowledge of their applicant populations to ensure more screening than was the case during the Syrian crisis. This also creates the capacity required to ensure referrals to Canada by Canadians can happen at the needed scale.
The need for more evacuations is extremely urgent. But with political leadership and private support, Canadians can seize this moment and work together to ensure a better life for those Afghans we worked alongside. Canada owes it to those left behind to guarantee their safety in a situation where Canadian actions put them in danger.
It’s also, quite simply, the right thing to do.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.