Immigration Minister Sean Fraser cannot say when the 40,000 Afghan refugees the government has promised to resettle in Canada will arrive, citing the limited referral capacity of partners and saying it would be irresponsible to give people the false hope of a firm date.
Afghans still waiting to leave the country have said the Canadian government has abandoned them. Many worked alongside the Canadian military and with the embassy in Afghanistan, and now they are terrified of Taliban reprisals. Meanwhile, the country has plunged into a worsening economic and food crisis. Afghans waiting in neighbouring countries are also growing desperate as their savings dwindle, clinging only to the hope that they will receive an e-mail with news from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Fraser said the capacity of referral organizations in third countries, which identify vulnerable refugees and recommend them to Canada, and extraordinary challenges within Afghanistan make it difficult to set a timeline for resettlement – adding that, as Afghans hang on to every word he says, it would not be fair “to start putting potentially arbitrary markers down.”
The most daunting challenge, he said, is helping people inside Afghanistan: Because of the Taliban, Ottawa must work with its partners in the region to secure safe passage out of the country for those people.
Months ago, the government said it would resettle tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who weren’t able to leave the country before the Taliban returned to power in August. Now, many find themselves in desperate situations inside Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, waiting for Ottawa to approve their applications.
So far, fewer than 4,000 have made it to Canada, while 1,200 have been approved for resettlement and are waiting in third countries. More than 9,500 inside Afghanistan are also approved and waiting for word from Ottawa.
“I think it’s important that we’re really honest with people that there is an enormous challenge,” Mr. Fraser said. He said Ottawa’s commitment will not waver – that it will make good on its moral obligation to help people who helped Canada, “no matter the scale of this challenge.
“But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to find those individuals in a short period of time and have them resettle in Canada. And I fear that there is a belief amongst some people that it’s supposed to happen tomorrow.”
Mr. Fraser said bringing refugees to Canada from neighbouring countries is taking some time because of a capacity issue among referral partners, which have begun scaling up their operations.
“To date referrals have not been happening in large numbers from some of the largest partners that we traditionally work with,” he said.
His office said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not referred anyone to Canada yet under a new humanitarian program. The 400 refugees who have arrived in Canada so far under the program were referred by other partners, including NATO.
The UN refugee agency’s representative in Canada, Rema Jamous Imseis, said the UNHCR will be referring refugees who are most at risk. Some will have recently fled the Taliban, while others will come from longstanding caseloads.
“Conversations, discussions, consultations, planning – all of that is actively under way, and we are and have been, for several months, standing up and scaling the presence required in neighbouring countries,” she said.
Meanwhile, Afghans inside and outside the country continue to wait for an update from Ottawa.
Lauryn Oates, the executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said that even before Kabul fell in August, her staff wanted out and applied. Two staff members and their families have made it to Canada. But most are waiting to hear from Immigration, with two people and their families waiting in Pakistan and the rest in Afghanistan.
Ms. Oates said she is hopeful that, with a change in minister, there is a “chance for a reset,” adding that her experience is the same as that of many NGOs.
“Even just communicate, send a reply that says: Look, we’re gonna do our best to give you an answer by the end of December, so people have something,” she said. “It seems to be a failure of bureaucracy and an inability to adapt to an emergency … the needs of human beings who are real people with real families who just want to know what the hell is going to happen to them.”
Mr. Fraser said he sees an opportunity to improve communication and the transparency of a person’s status. Ottawa owes that to people who are “hanging on to every word that’s coming out of the mouth of a government official.”
Personally, he said, he knows the consequences for people Canada has offered to help – that people’s lives are at stake.
“That’s the kind of thing that you think about when you go to bed at night and you ask yourself, ‘Am I bringing the level of dedication and talent to this job that the magnitude of the task demands?’ And I hope to God I do.”
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