Canada was able to evacuate about 60 Afghan nationals overland to Pakistan in what Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says is a “test run” to bring more of Canada’s allies to safely to this country.
Mr. Mendicino told The Globe and Mail Friday that Canada is working to secure safe air flights out of Afghanistan for Canadian citizens and permanent residents while using land routes for Afghan nationals who worked for Canada’s military and diplomacy.
“As a result of a very intricate and careful operation, we were able to evacuate roughly 60 Afghan refugees through a land route to Pakistan, where they will continue on to following some additional screening to Canada for humanitarian settlement,” he said in an interview.
“It represents a successful test run of a land route to Pakistan for the humanitarian settlement of Afghans attempting to exit Afghanistan. What we hope, as a result of this successful test run, is that we are going to be able to scale up evacuations via land routes.”
A government official said 62 Afghan nationals used the overland route, but not all of them went at the same time. The Globe is not revealing the name of the official because they were not allowed to publicly discuss the rescue mission.
On Thursday, 43 Canadians were among the dozens of foreigners who left Afghanistan on an international commercial flight, the first large-scale departure since the United States completed its withdrawal from the country more than a week ago.
Mr. Mendicino said it has taken careful planning to make sure the land route was safe for Canada’s Afghan allies, who have Canadian exit visas, and that they would not be stopped or arrested by Taliban forces at a web of checkpoints.
Although he declined to discuss the details of the operation, Mr. Mendicino said the Taliban did recognize the Canadian exit visas at the checkpoints and that Pakistani border guards allowed them passage into the country, where they were met by Canadian diplomatic staff.
“Now we want to take the next step and that is to significantly scale up our evacuation efforts by land,” the minister said. “We wanted to be sure that Afghan nationals would be able to exit safely and reliably via a land route so we used this route … as a critical test run.”
He cautioned that the success of the operation depends on the co-operation of the Taliban.
The minister said that Canada is prepared to accept up to 40,000 Afghan refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Ottawa will take in about 8,000 former Afghan support staff and their families and about 13,000 Afghans now in refugee camps in Pakistan.
Ottawa will do whatever it can, Mr. Mendicino said, to get as many Afghans currently in the country to safety in Canada if they fear possible Taliban reprisals. He said those people include women, girls, journalists, minorities and human-rights activists.
“Given the humanitarian crisis and given the volatility on the ground, we have been leveraging the government-assisted refugee program, which is actually a faster and more expedited way to get refugees out of the country,” he said. “In addition to that, we are looking to leverage the private sponsorship refugee program … so we will be partnering with private sponsors.”
U.S. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal has urged the Canadian government to help find a safe third country to land charter flights from Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan. He has been working with NGOs and veterans groups to get about 700 people out of Mazar-i-Sharif, including nine Afghans with Canadian exit visas and one permanent resident.
Two planes at that airport, which have been chartered by Western donors, need a country to land in where they can transfer the passengers to different planes that are able to land in Albania, which has agreed to take all the people for processing. Qatar has so far declined to give them landing rights.
One option is for Canada to press Ukraine to allow the planes to land so the people can transfer flights to Albania and then transit to their destinations in Canada, the United States and other Western counties.
Mr. Mendicino said Canada is working with Qatar and Ukraine to get landing rights so that Afghan nationals can be processed and allowed to travel onto Canada.
“We are exhausting all options and we are working with regional partners to establish air bridges,” he said.
Ottawa said last week that more than 1,200 Canadian nationals, permanent residents and their family members remain in Afghanistan. The government is advising them to stay in hiding while diplomats negotiate with the Taliban for their safe exit from the country. About 4,300 Afghan nationals who either worked for Canada or have family members who did so are also waiting to get out of Afghanistan once the Kabul airport is reopened to civilian aircraft.