Eight months after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, slightly more than one quarter of the 40,000 Afghan refugees Canada committed to resettle have arrived, raising concerns about the fate of those left behind.
The government announced a dedicated refugee-resettlement program for Afghans last summer, as U.S. troops prepared to leave the country and the Taliban started making gains. Among those seeking protection are Afghans who served the Canadian military and diplomatic mission in the conflict zone. Canada has welcomed 11,165 Afghan refugees since, but as other refugee crises emerge globally, putting more pressure on the already-strained immigration system, Afghans are worried their dreams of starting a new life in Canada have been stalled or forgotten entirely.
The Globe and Mail takes a look at how the refugee-resettlement program with such high hopes is now letting so many Afghans down.
Taliban takeover forces Afghan allies to run
Last summer, after two decades of war, U.S. troops prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan. Canadian troops were no longer in the country, but had served as a part of the NATO-led mission from 2001 to 2014, losing 158 soldiers in the war.
Concerns about the fate of the Afghan interpreters and support staff who worked alongside Canadian troops and diplomats during the war, including cooks, guards, drivers and cleaners, started to grow as the Taliban made gains ahead of the U.S. departure.
More than 800 Afghans who contributed to the Canadian mission resettled in Canada in 2009 and 2012. However, thousands more remained in Afghanistan under threat from the Taliban because of the work they did for Canada.
Retired major-general David Fraser, who commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan, recently told The Globe that about 10,000 former staff and their family members remain in the country, while others fled to neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser’s spokesperson, Aidan Strickland, did not disclose how many Afghans awaiting resettlement in Canada are currently stuck in Pakistan, citing safety concerns, but said it is likely in the range of thousands.
Canada offers refuge to Afghans
As the security situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate last July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced a special immigration program for former Afghan staff and their family members. On Aug. 4, the first flight carrying Afghan refugees arrived in Canada. In a statement at the time, the government said: “We are doing everything we can to get every Afghan refugee out as swiftly and safely as possible, but we recognize that the security situation can change rapidly.”
On Aug. 13, the Trudeau government announced it would welcome 20,000 Afghans refugees from vulnerable groups, including women activists, human-rights advocates and Afghan journalists. In order to qualify for this humanitarian program, applicants have to be located outside of Afghanistan and be referred to Canada by the UN refugee agency or another referral group for human-rights defenders, or have a private sponsor in Canada.
The Taliban quickly overtook provincial capitals and, in a matter of hours on Aug. 15, overran the presidential palace. Canada closed its embassy in Kabul after the Taliban entered the capital, amplifying concerns that former Afghan staff would be left behind. The closing of the embassy complicated evacuation plans for former Afghan staff, as Canada no longer had diplomats on the ground to help get them out.
Chaos ensued on the ground as Afghans scrambled to Kabul’s airport in an attempt to get on evacuation flight out of the country. Scenes of desperate Afghans flooding the tarmac at Hamid Karzai International Airport in an attempt to get a spot on the overcrowded evacuation flights horrified the world. Thousands of Afghans who served Canada’s mission couldn’t get out in time.
A week after winning the election last September, the Liberal government announced that Canada would double its commitment and welcome 40,000 Afghan refugees. Mr. Fraser, the minister, has since confirmed that Ottawa is on track to reach its goal by 2023.
In November, the government expanded the resettlement measures to extended family members of former Afghan employees who arrived in Canada under the 2009 and 2012 programs.
Nine months on, Afghans still stuck overseas
The most recent government figures show 11,165 Afghans have arrived in Canada since last August. About half of the total Afghan arrivals – 5,630 – were resettled through the special program for those who supported Canada; 14,900 Afghans have applied for the program and 10,180 applications have been approved, meaning 4,550 approved refugees have yet to arrive in Canada.
The other half of the Afghan arrivals – 5,535 people – have come to Canada through the humanitarian resettlement program.
Weekly flights of Afghan refugees continue to arrive at a steady pace, but it’s not enough for those who can’t get on a plane.
Speaking to The Globe, former Afghan staff say they applied for resettlement in Canada last August. They received an automatic reply acknowledging their application but have heard nothing since. Meanwhile, the Taliban maintains its grip on the country, forcing the vulnerable Afghans to run from safe house to safe house in an effort to escape reprisals from the terror group.
Some of them require a special single-journey travel document because they don’t have Afghan passports; the document would allow them to cross in Pakistan – if they can safely get there – where they can undergo security screening and biometrics required to eventually fly to Canada.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the Immigration Minister said the situation in Afghanistan presents “extraordinary challenges” that don’t exist in other refugee-resettlement programs. Thousands of Afghans have been approved for resettlement in Canada, the minister said, but the Taliban is preventing them from leaving the conflict zone.
“If this was a matter of political will, there would have been 40,000 Afghan refugees here months ago. The realistic situation is there is not safe passage for thousands and thousands of people who would like to come to Canada.”
In a separate statement, Ms. Strickland said “there’s no lack of effort on the part of the government of Canada” and the bottleneck is “situational and environmental factors on the ground in Afghanistan.” She said the government is doing everything it can to help Afghan refugees get to Canada, such as sending additional staff to embassies, high commissions and consulates.
Other Afghans who escaped the conflict zone are now stuck in neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, facing a different set of challenges. The minister said Afghans require a passport to leave the country that they are seeking short-term protection in, and the document can only be issued by the Taliban.
“You can appreciate that there’s a certain reticence for people who have fled Afghanistan, because potentially of the work that they’ve done for the Canadian government, to go and ask the Taliban for a favour,” he said.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the government must stop making excuses and listen to the pleas of Afghans.
“The layers of bureaucracy continue to create major barriers for those who had to burn many of their documents to avoid being targeted by the Taliban,” said Ms. Kwan.
Accusations of a two-tiered system
Concerns about the slow pace of the Afghan resettlement effort intensified last month when Canada launched an expedited immigration program for Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia. While Afghans continue to face dozens of forms, stringent security reviews and long wait times, Ukrainian applications are being fast-tracked in a matter of days or weeks.
According to the government’s online estimator tool, the average processing time for a visitor visa for a Ukrainian is eight days. The same website says it can’t provide accurate processing times for Afghan refugee applications because of the evolving situation in the region. Ms. Strickland said processing times are based on the applicant’s location, whether Canada can process their application and whether the applicant has the proper travel documents.
The Conservatives and NDP have accused the Liberals of creating a two-tier system that prioritizes Ukrainians over refugees from other countries, such as Afghanistan. Although more than 11,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada since Russia invaded at the end of February, the initiative is not directly comparable with the Afghan program, as Ukrainians are processed through the immigration stream and not technically considered refugees.
Last week, the House of Commons immigration committee passed a motion calling on Mr. Fraser to extend the expedited immigration measures recently granted to Ukrainians to other humanitarian crises, including Afghanistan. Ms. Strickland said the committee’s findings and discussions are “duly reviewed and considered,” but would not say whether the government will implement any of the requests.
The minister said Wednesday that while Canada’s immigration system has never faced more demands, it’s not an excuse to not do the “right and just thing when a humanitarian crisis erupts in the world.” The government maintains it is fully equipped to handle multiple immigration initiatives at once. It recently hired 500 new processing staff and set aside $85-million in new funding to reduce application backlogs.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was in Ottawa last week meeting with officials, including Mr. Trudeau. In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Grandi said he was assured that the special measures for Ukrainians are not impacting the efficacy of the refugee streams.
Comparison with the Syrian refugee resettlement
In 2015, the Liberal government campaigned on a promise to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees; the program was launched soon after Mr. Trudeau took office. The government successfully resettled 25,000 Syrians within the program’s first 100 days, raising the question – why can’t Ottawa resettle Afghans as quickly?
The Immigration Minister said the Syrian program was different because it didn’t launch until years after the Syrian war began, whereas the most recent Afghan refugee resettlement was launched weeks after the Taliban took over.
Many refugees from Syria had already fled to surrounding countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They had already been processed by the UN refugee agency and were ready to travel to Canada, the minister said.
To date, more than 80,000 Syrians have sought refuge and resettled in Canada.
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