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Refugees from Afghanistan board a bus after being processed at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Aug. 17, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When the federal government launched an immigration program for Afghans who worked with Canada’s military or government in Afghanistan, it capped the number of people it was willing to receive at a maximum of 2,500, though did not make that figure public for more than a year.

The cap for the special immigration measures (SIM) program was then gradually increased over several months.

The evolving caps were made public for the first time on Aug. 27 – more than a year after the program began – when the government published the temporary policies behind the program, which provide its legal foundation. The disclosure also shows that the program’s penultimate policy ended in January, at the latest, but a new one didn’t come into effect until June – a gap that two lawyers called “inexplicable.”

Maureen Silcoff and Sujit Choudhry, who have been retained by around 30 Afghan nationals to explore their legal options for securing entry to Canada, also criticized the federal government for capping the program, and for failing to publicize the caps and expiry dates spelled out in the policies from the beginning.

“These measures mean that from its inception, the government created an artificial cap that would inevitably leave Afghans behind to face possible death, because of their significant and enduring connection to Canada,” Ms. Silcoff said.

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Opposition MPs and advocates have criticized the federal government for poor communication, long delays and seemingly arbitrary decision making within the SIM program. More than a year after Afghanistan fell to Taliban control, they say many Afghans who worked for Canada are still unsure whether they will eventually receive a shot at safe passage to Canada or be left behind. In the meantime, many are in hiding – in danger of being targeted by the Taliban.

While Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan ended in 2014, the SIM program also applies to Afghans who worked with Canada in the years since, such as at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

The first time the federal government publicly referenced a limit to the SIM program was on April 25, when Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told the House special committee on Afghanistan that the government planned to welcome 18,000 Afghans through the program. In June, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) confirmed the vast majority of those 18,000 slots were spoken for, prompting widespread calls for the Liberal government to do away with the cap.

The official caps detailed in the government’s policies are not as simple as the 18,000-person plan, however. The first policy, dated July 22, 2021, as well as three updated versions, dated Aug. 9, Aug. 22, and Nov. 10, 2021, were all set to expire when IRCC received applications for a certain number of people – or on Jan. 31, 2022, whichever came first.

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Former Afghan Interpreter Abdul Wahdat drapes himself with the Afghan flag during a hunger strike on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2021.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The first policy would end “on January 31, 2022, or once applications for 2,500 individuals have been received for resettlement to Canada, whichever comes first.” The subsequent three iterations upped the cap on applications to 5,700, then 9,500, then 14,000.

By the Aug. 22 version, the policy also made clear that the cap included both “principal applicants,” as well as “their family members and or other members of the household.”

Jeffrey MacDonald, an IRCC spokesperson, said in an e-mail the multiple policies for the SIM program reflect the federal government’s “ongoing and increasing” response to the situation in Afghanistan. (Mr. Fraser was not made available for an interview.)

The government’s current policy, dated June 8, 2022, sets out additional slots. It ends when applications for 5,000 people have been “accepted into processing” by IRCC or on March 31, 2023, whichever comes first, “with the view to fulfill the commitment of 18,000 admissions.”

With the Nov. 10, 2021 policy ending on Jan. 31, at the latest, and a new one not coming into effect until June 8, Ms. Silcoff and Mr. Choudhry questioned what took place during this gap. Mr. Choudhry said they found it “utterly inexplicable” that the program’s legal framework was allowed to expire at all – let alone for four months.

Mr. MacDonald did not dispute that there was a policy gap, but said “at no time did we stop processing applications we had received.” When The Globe and Mail followed up to ask whether IRCC issued any new invitations to apply during the four-month period, IRCC did not directly answer.

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Instead, a second IRCC spokesperson, Rémi Larivière, said, “the processing of SIMs applications that were submitted prior to January 31, 2022 continued throughout the February – June period.”

Mr. MacDonald also did not directly answer whether the government has produced an estimate of the total number of Afghans it anticipated would qualify for the SIM program. He said the ability of the government and its security screening partners to process and vet applications was a factor in establishing the caps.

Mr. Choudhry said the evolving caps reveal them as arbitrary.

“It just suggests that the government was making up policy on the fly,” he said. “I refuse to believe that after 20 years in Afghanistan, we do not have a reliable estimate of how many individuals would qualify.”

According to IRCC, as of Sept. 7, the department has received 15,340 applications to the SIM program, resulting in 10,880 approvals, with 7,735 Afghans arriving in Canada.

The federal government has acknowledged the danger Afghans are in while they await answers, stating in the June 8 policy that Afghans who worked for Canada are at increased risk of being targeted for “attacks and assassination campaigns” because of that work.

Last week, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, submitted his first report, detailing numerous concerns since the Taliban took control, including a “staggering regression” of women’s and girls’ rights and “reports of ongoing extrajudicial and reprisal killings” by the Taliban.

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