Rachel Pulfer, Mohammad Popal and Jordan MacInnis are staff members at Journalists for Human Rights.
Monday marks the one-year anniversary of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. In the past year, an estimated quarter of a million people have left the country, adding to what is already the world’s third-largest refugee population. These numbers belie how many people are still desperate to leave and how difficult it is to do so.
One of them is Freshta, whose work as a reporter and civil servant made her visible enough to become a target of the Taliban. The Globe and Mail has changed her name because she fears for her safety.
On Jan. 11, she received four calls from their intelligence service inquiring about her location. Two days later, she left the country with 12 family members, including her mother and two brothers. She left to save her life and the lives of her family, she said, by choosing the only route available to her.
“There were rumours that the Taliban were stopping people at the Torkham border [into Pakistan]. The best option was to go to Iran,” Freshta said.
On April 28, she left the house in Tehran where she was staying with a small bag and no money. The police began questioning her while she waited at a bus stop. Freshta, her brothers and two of her brothers’ children were arrested and then deported. Back in Afghanistan, she went into hiding and applied for a Canadian visa. In June, she left the country again, this time for Pakistan.
When Afghan citizens leave their country, they must also leave behind their possessions, homes and families. With the country’s economy near collapse, many have already forfeited regular incomes and access to personal funds. In Pakistan and Iran, where most Afghan refugees now reside, they have little to no access to essential services and financial support. In these precarious circumstances, hundreds including Freshta wait for Canada to green-light their travel, and for host countries to allow them to leave. Most don’t know when this wait will come to an end.
Back home, Afghanistan is not faring much better. International groups, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, have criticized the steady erosion of women’s and girls’ rights in the country. More than half of Afghan journalists have left their industry. Three-quarters of women journalists are unemployed. The risk to journalists’ safety remains high.
In response to the Taliban takeover, Journalists for Human Rights, the International Federation of Journalists, the Unifor trade union, the Canadian Bankers’ Association, a coalition of corporations and media partners led by The Globe and Mail, and a group of Canadian journalists worked to evacuate and support more than 400 journalists, fixers, translators, human-rights defenders and their families from Afghanistan. In partnership with veterans’ group Aman Lara, the Government of Canada and others, JHR helped relocate more than 1,500 Afghans.
As a media development organization that works internationally to support journalistic freedoms, we are grateful for the government’s support of these efforts. However, many more people remain at risk in Afghanistan. And time is running out.
NGOs are essential to refugee referrals, relocation and resettlement. Our organizations can offer support to media professionals such as Freshta. We can highlight the precarity of press freedom in the country and how vital women’s voices are to that freedom. And we can learn from the current crisis in order to mitigate future ones. But we cannot do it alone.
Private sponsorship and refugee referrals undertaken by NGOs require a significant financial investment. We propose establishing a referral method that maximizes the NGOs’ knowledge of the applicant populations and provides them with the financial support to carry out this work. This would guarantee safe, legal passage out of Afghanistan through a network that is informed about the populations they represent along with governments willing to innovate the process. The result would be a faster, better-informed and more precise referral system for refugees who reflect Canadian priorities.
We, and other NGOS that actively support at-risk groups, recommend emergency visas for women leaders, human-rights defenders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, journalists and those who worked alongside Canadian journalists.
Given the country’s record on human rights, we also recommend increasing the size of the humanitarian program for vulnerable Afghan nationals from the current total of 3,000.
Safe passage requires more than just a way out. Reconsidering what it really costs to flee persecution and violence means creating more humane solutions for the people that need them. That would be welcome news for Freshta and others like her. The rest of her family remains in Afghanistan. They now hope to make it to Canada.
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