Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau is asking Canadians and Afghans left behind in Afghanistan not to lose hope: Ottawa is not offering any concrete measures to evacuate them, but he says Canadian diplomats will be available to help them if they can make it to a third country.
Canada’s evacuation flights from Kabul ended on Thursday – five days before the U.S. military is scheduled to leave, on Aug. 31 – and the Canadian government has e-mailed and texted people who did not get out, telling them to “shelter in place.”
The Taliban, designated a terrorist entity in Canada, have moved swiftly to take back the country, causing panic among Afghans who fear a return of the Islamist group’s brutal ways.
Speaking during a media briefing on Afghanistan on Friday with Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Mr. Garneau said it’s possible that some evacuees bound for Canada could still make it out on allies’ planes.
He said the government is exploring other means of extracting people from Afghanistan, including “ways to get to third countries.” He could not say how many people have been left behind, but some 8,000 Afghans applied for resettlement in Canada. Ottawa was able to evacuate 3,200 people, but it’s not clear whether all those people were bound for this country because Canada and its allies were pooling flight efforts.
Mr. Garneau said there is still hope Kabul’s airport might reopen to foreign flights even after the Taliban take full control of it.
“Let me be clear: We will not stop looking for other paths to bring these people home,” Mr. Garneau said.
He said “regional partners” in South and Central Asia are speaking to the Taliban about “returning Kabul airport possibly in the future to more normal operations.”
Asked if he would advise people to head by land to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan on the south and west, Mr. Garneau declined to offer guidance on exit routes.
“We’re asking people to stay in place at the moment to see how things evolve in the coming days. Some people may make the decision they will seek to get to a third country.”
But he said Canadian diplomats will be ready to receive anyone who can make it to Pakistan. “We have consulates in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi and we will be waiting there for them.”
The Taliban control Afghanistan’s borders and have said they do not want any more Afghan nationals to leave.
Other countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are restricting border crossings for fear of being overrun with Afghan refugees.
Iran closed its border to Afghanistan on Wednesday while Turkey and Tajikistan beefed up border measures after Kabul fell to the Taliban. Uzbekistan said on Friday that it had sent 150 refugees back to Afghanistan as per an agreement with the Taliban and after requests from the refugees themselves.
Horeya Mosavi, an Afghan Canadian who lives in Edmonton, said on Friday that her uncle, his wife and their three children got out of Kabul on one of the last evacuation flights.
But she says other family members who were unable to get on the rescue aircraft are now hiding out in Kabul.
“There is no way to get out. First, the Taliban have closed the roads and other countries have closed the borders. They are trapped,” she said.
At a campaign event in Mississauga on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa is working with regional partners to “put pressure on the Taliban to allow people to leave.”
He said the government and its allies were surprised at how fast the Taliban took over Afghanistan. He said people on the ground and around the world “thought there would be more time.”
But he defended his government’s evacuation response, saying officials expedited the visa process for Afghans who worked for Canada’s military and diplomats as translators, fixers and support staff.
“Our first priority has to be and will always be getting Canadians to safety,” he told reporters. “For those Canadians who remain unfortunately in Afghanistan, we will continue to demand both that the Taliban allow them to get out to safety but also to work with international allies and regional partners to ensure they are able to do that.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole released a video statement late Thursday night explaining what he would do with the crisis in Afghanistan if he were prime minister. He said Canada should work with its allies and Afghanistan’s neighbours to help anyone who is able to flee from the Taliban, work with allies to establish humanitarian and refugee corridors, and provide political and material support to Afghans who are resisting the Taliban.
At a news conference in Corner Brook, N.L., on Friday, the Conservative Leader said material support should include intelligence, satellite imagery, logistics and flak jackets.
“Our goal is to help people: establishing the corridors, helping the refugees and minimizing the ability for the people to be harmed by the Taliban,” Mr. O’Toole told reporters. “That’s giving material and political support that is not meant to be offensive. It’s meant to protect, it’s meant to provide assistance, intelligence, to help isolate and keep the Taliban away from areas where they could harm people.
“I’m really disappointed to see how slow the Trudeau government was, but let’s focus on helping now,” he added.
He said Canada should work with India and Pakistan, in particular, to establish safe corridors for aid to enter Afghanistan and for refugees to flee.
Canadian soldiers spent 13 years in Afghanistan in this country’s biggest combat operation since the Korean War. Canada spent tens of billions of dollars on combat, training and development, and 158 soldiers died in the deployment. During that time, a network of local people worked for Canada’s troops and diplomats at great risk to their own lives.
In July, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, the federal government announced a special immigration program to resettle those Afghans in Canada, where they would be safe from reprisals.
With reports from Marieke Walsh and Reuters
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