Federal Conservatives are calling on the Liberal government to lift an existing cap on the number of Afghans permitted to come to Canada under a special immigration program for those who worked with Canada’s military or government in Afghanistan.
Countless Afghans who applied near the start of the program a year ago have yet to hear back, Conservative MP Jasraj Singh Hallan, the party’s critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship, said at a press conference Thursday.
“They have only got auto-replies and empty promises,” he said. “The incompetency of how this government has run this program cannot be an excuse for Canada to turn its back on Afghans.”
Liberals capped the program at 18,000 spaces – and the vast majority are now taken. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada still has around 3,000 slots to formally allocate, but it already has referrals from Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence to fill them.
Opposition politicians and advocates say that government failures have left many Afghans who worked for Canada in a dangerous limbo – unsure whether they will eventually receive a shot at safe passage to Canada or be left behind. Those Afghans are at risk of being targeted by the Taliban for their co-operation with a foreign government.
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, 2021, the Liberals committed to bringing 40,000 Afghans to Canada through several streams, including the special immigration measures program. According to the latest IRCC figures, less than half that number have since arrived, and both Conservative and NDP MPs have criticized IRCC for poor communication, long delays and seemingly arbitrary decision-making within the special immigration program.
On Thursday, Mr. Singh Hallan also urged the Liberal government to adopt a suite of recommendations made by the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan in a report released in June, as well as to expand its relationships with trusted organizations that are helping get Afghans out of the country and to improve its co-ordination with third-party countries.
Several Afghans and advocates who spoke alongside Mr. Singh Hallan also called on the government to implement a risk assessment framework to speed up the applications of Afghans who are most at risk for the work they did for Canada.
Saeeq Shajjan said that before the Taliban takeover, he was running a successful law practice in Afghanistan called Shajjan & Associates. His firm contracted with the Canadian government for nine years, working in a very public way with government agencies, police and landlords on behalf of the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan, he said.
“People who are at most risk, people who were really exposed, who were known as working for the Canadian interests in Afghanistan, they need to be prioritized, they need to be issued case numbers as soon as possible,” said Mr. Sajjan.
Most of his colleagues are still stuck in Afghanistan, where he said they have been in hiding for the last 11 months, moving from place to place to place and living in constant fear.
Of 29 team members, a few found their way out of Afghanistan through other avenues, but 25 are still waiting to hear if they will be invited to apply for the special immigration program, he said. Almost a year after taking the first steps to apply, none of those staff members have even received a file number from IRCC, he said.
“I’m begging anyone for help to make sure that I bring these people to safety, but as of now, nothing has really happened,” he said.
Amanda Moddejonge, a Canadian veteran who has been involved in the volunteer response efforts to get Afghans out of the country, also said that the program’s 18,000-person cap must be lifted and a risk assessment framework put in place.
“Shajjan & Associates were literally the face of Canada,” she said. “That should be an absolute no-brainer. Help them.”
Asked at a separate press conference Thursday whether the federal government will commit to expanding the special immigration program, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not answer directly.
“The challenge, of course, is that there are millions of people in Afghanistan, who are hoping for a better future. There are hundreds of thousands of people who would like to come to Canada,” he said.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, who spoke alongside Mr. Trudeau, also said that challenges with the Afghan resettlement are being “driven by situational factors on the ground, not by government decisions.”
Asked for the total number of referrals that IRCC has received for the special immigration program, as well how the government selected the 18,000-person limit, Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Mr. Fraser, offered general information but did not answer the specific questions.
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