Humanitarian groups say the federal government should exempt their on-the-ground work in Afghanistan from its anti-terror law, warning that Ottawa’s current policies are preventing them from delivering crucial aid to people in desperate need. The law also hinders the work of groups helping evacuate Afghans to Canada.
It’s been one year since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, which is facing a worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. Nearly 20 million people are facing extreme levels of hunger. Yet Canadian groups are prevented from helping people there using Canadian money.
Canada’s largest aid agencies say that because Ottawa considers the Taliban a terrorist group, a law prohibiting financing of terrorism, as well as Canada’s sanctions regime, significantly impede their work.
The organizations launched an online campaign recently that says Canada is denying life-saving aid. It says that while Canada’s allies have carved out humanitarian exceptions to their sanctions regimes and criminal law, Canada “has yet to provide an avenue for humanitarian agencies to continue their operations in Afghanistan.”
Amy Avis, general counsel at the Canadian Red Cross, said there are two sets of barriers: the sanctions regime and the anti-terrorism provisions. Taken together, she said, neither have an exemption for humanitarian assistance, and so the Canadian Red Cross is unable to do its work in Afghanistan.
“Every Canadian aid organization is blocked, but all of our international partners are able to work in the country. And so Canadian aid organizations can’t provide any funding even through our international partners,” she said. Ms. Avis said Canada’s humanitarian sector is an “outlier in our international partner conversations.”
“It’s really challenging to not be able to continue projects that were hugely successful, that we believe in and not be able to continue to work with a partner that we’ve been working with for over 10 years.”
Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said for 2022, Canada has allocated $143-million in humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable people in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.
Ms. Tremblay said the government is working with organizations in Afghanistan, including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to continue to deliver international assistance.
“Although the Taliban has taken over as the de facto national authority of Afghanistan, it remains a terrorist group and is a listed terrorist entity under the Criminal Code,” she said.
Ms. Tremblay said government departments are working to identify a solution that “upholds Canada’s national security interests while facilitating the effective delivery of assistance to the Afghan people in this unprecedented situation.”
Taryn Russell, head of policy and advocacy for Save the Children Canada, said when the Taliban took over, the international community cut off aid and froze assets, but other countries updated their regimes, carving out the ability for humanitarian groups to continue work in the country. But Canada has not done that, she said.
“Canadian organizations and the Canadian public can’t send funding to Afghanistan without coming up against the Criminal Code and anti-terrorism provisions,” she said, which could lead to prosecution and the loss of the organization’s charitable status.
Ms. Russell said Save the Children Canada is its own entity, so it cannot work inside Afghanistan, while Save the Children’s global operations can, but it cannot be supported with any Canadian funding.
“It’s really disappointing,” she said, raising the fact that Canada has had a presence in Afghanistan for decades and a significant part of that was its international assistance. “A lot of that went toward health, education, but particularly women and girls. Canada has always been a champion in that area. So it’s a huge gap now that Canada is not contributing in that area.”
She said that while Canada is sending some funds to United Nations agencies, there is still a huge hole because Canadian organizations and the Canadian public are excluded.
Meanwhile Afghanistan is in the worst humanitarian situation on record, Ms. Russell said. “Life for children is really dire … 97 per cent of families are struggling to provide enough food for their children.”
Reyhana Patel, director of communications and government relations for Islamic Relief Canada, said her organization has operated in Afghanistan for two decades.
Ms. Patel said she hasn’t sensed any urgency on Ottawa’s part to act.
“Some of the calls I’ve had, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, you know we’re looking into it.’ It’s really not urgent. But when you look at the humanitarian situation on the ground … it’s urgent.”
The aid barriers have also affected veterans and volunteer organizations leading the charge to evacuate Afghans approved for resettlement in Canada.
The Globe and Mail reported in June that groups trying to evacuate people were facing major hurdles because of how Ottawa is strictly enforcing anti-terrorism law.
Brian Macdonald, executive director of Aman Lara, one of the organizations doing this work, said they have had to find workarounds such as bringing in supplies from third countries to ensure they do not incur any expenses in Afghanistan.
“But much more would be possible if that wasn’t in place. For example, we would fly flights out of Kabul directly. There’s no reason on the ground why you can’t fly a plane out of Kabul, it’s a functioning airport … so we could do that except we can’t do it because we have to pay a landing fee which goes to the Taliban.”
Mr. Macdonald said the last thing his organization – a group of veterans – wants to do is fund the Taliban, but he believes it’s a narrow interpretation of the law and it makes it more difficult for them to operate.
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