A Canadian veterans group is giving up its efforts to evacuate Afghans who supported Ottawa’s military and diplomatic mission in the country, citing staff burnout and a federal immigration system that is overburdened with red tape.
The Veterans Transition Network, which says it raised $3.6-million and helped rescue 2,061 Afghans since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August, 2021, is refocusing on its main priority of helping Canadian veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems.
Oliver Thorne, VTN executive director, said onerous government paperwork, lack of federal funding and the difficulty of finding safe routes out of Afghanistan forced the charitable organization to give up its evacuation work.
Mr. Thorne said VTN staff are exhausted from performing double duty, especially the additional workload of handling the complicated application process put in place by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The paperwork and security vetting causes significant delays in approvals of special visas for Canada’s Afghan allies, he said.
“What we are seeing is government policy that is very risk averse to the point of being selfish, and it is affecting organizations like ours,” he said, stressing that the fault does not lie with IRCC public servants.
“We are connecting with really hard-working individuals who really want to help, but it seems they are hog-tied by policy that is just not aligned with the real needs of this evacuation.”
Mr. Thorne said VTN and other veterans groups, such as humanitarian organization Aman Lara, are frustrated by the slow pace of visa approvals, the failure of IRCC to respond to visa requests and security screening and biometric verification. The delays have forced many former Afghan interpreters, embassy security guards, cooks and drivers to seek refuge in safe houses to avoid Taliban reprisals.
He urged the government to streamline the process for Afghans who risked their lives for Canada, as Ottawa has done for Ukrainian nationals fleeing the Russian invasion. The situation is urgent, he said, because the Taliban are hunting Afghans who worked for Canada and other Western allies.
“What would ease the process the most is the ability to do biometric verification after arrival in Canada. That would really eliminate a huge administrative burden on the applicants,” he said. “Failing that, something like a single-use travel document … to allow people without passports to move into Pakistan, where they could do biometric processing.”
Mr. Thorne said Ottawa has also become too restrictive in how groups such as VTN can use federal money to help Afghans with living expenses.
“Obviously there is great concern about the possibility of funds ending up in the hands of the Taliban,” he said. “[But] that goes to extremes. We have heard from individuals in government that there is concern gasoline being purchased could then result in taxes being paid to the Taliban.”
VTN will stop accepting donations on May 2 and any money raised during this period will go to evacuations over resettlement.
“It is really a tough decision. We leaned into this for a harder and much longer time than we originally anticipated but there is also the reality that we are needed here at home,” Mr. Thorne said.
Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, a former Liberal MP and Canadian Army commander, said Afghans are being murdered as they wait for their promised Canadian travel documents. For the past few months, he said he’s been unable to contact some of his Afghan friends and fears that they’ve been killed by the Taliban.
Mr. Leslie blames the visa delays and bureaucratic roadblocks on Justin Trudeau. He said the Prime Minister has failed to step in and order the process streamlined, as he did for Ukrainian nationals.
“It is inexcusable. We have a byzantine system of emergency response, vast centralization into the Prime Minister’s Office with folk who, in many cases, don’t have a clue what they are talking about,” Mr. Leslie said. “Unless the Prime Minister and Finance Minister are personally involved, there is not going to be change.”
Mr. Trudeau and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser have said the closing of Canada’s embassy in Kabul has made it difficult to process documents and the Taliban are blocking Afghans who have been approved for resettlement in Canada from leaving.
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen accused Mr. Trudeau of abandoning Canada’s Afghan allies in their “darkest hours.”
“There has to be political leadership to make these tough decisions and you have to say to the civil servants, get this done,” she said in an interview. “There is full political will in Parliament to do whatever is necessary.”
Six former Afghan interpreters for the Canadian military told the House of Commons special committee on Afghanistan last week that family members and colleagues left behind must fill out more than a dozen forms and face stringent security reviews. They asked to be treated the same as Ukrainian nationals.
Ottawa swiftly streamlined the immigration process to help resettle Ukrainians, including waiving the biometric requirements for seniors and minors. The government also eliminated most of the normal visa requirements, and allows Ukrainians to stay and work in Canada for up to three years.
“The ability to waive documentation for people over 60 and under 18, that would ease the process, there is no doubt,” Mr. Thorne said.
Many Afghans, including more than 50 former Canadian embassy security guards, say they received an auto reply acknowledging their application in early August, but have heard nothing since. Veterans writing letters of reference for Afghans have had the same experience.
Ottawa managed to get about 3,600 Afghan allies out before rescue flights ended in late August. In November, Canada set up a special immigration program for the extended families of its former Afghan employees. To qualify, applicants must have been in Afghanistan on or after July 22, 2021. It also established a program for women activists, human-rights advocates and Afghan journalists.
The government has committed to resettling 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan. More than 10,600 have arrived in Canada since August.
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