A year after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, opposition MPs and non-profit groups are urging the Liberal government to do more to help thousands of vulnerable Afghans who remain trapped in the country, even after being promised refuge in Canada.
On Monday, both the Conservatives and New Democrats criticized the government’s handling of the Afghan evacuation. In a joint statement, Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Hallan and Pierre Paul-Hus, the Conservative critic for public services and procurement, said the government “has a moral obligation to do everything they can to get these families to safety.”
In the days that followed the Taliban takeover, governments around the world rushed to evacuate their own citizens, as well as Afghans who had assisted each country’s diplomatic or military mission in Afghanistan.
The Canadian government vowed to bring 40,000 Afghans to Canada. At first, it promised refuge to those who had worked alongside Canadian troops or at the Canadian embassy in Kabul. Later, it committed to bringing over Afghans who would be particularly vulnerable to harm under fundamentalist Taliban rule, such as women’s rights activists and people who are gay or transgender.
But one year on, many who believe they fall into one of those categories have repeatedly contacted Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to no avail. Afghans who formerly worked for Canada have told The Globe and Mail they feel completely abandoned. And they are growing increasingly anxious about what will become of them if Canada denies them resettlement.
Some of their anxiety has to do with the fact that the Canadian resettlement program places caps on the numbers of Afghans who will be admitted in each category. After announcing the 40,000 figure in July, the government specified that there would be 18,000 spots for Afghans who assisted the Canadian government, as well as their family members. Another 17,000 spots would be available for vulnerable Afghans through a humanitarian stream, and 5,000 spots would be reserved for extended family members of Afghans who had already resettled in Canada after working as interpreters for the Canadian Armed Forces.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan accused the government on Monday of choosing numbers at random.
“The government set an arbitrary quota of 18,000 for those who assisted Canada. The quota is fast filling up, and yet many Afghans who served Canada are left behind,” she said at a news conference. She called for the quota to be scrapped.
Ms. Kwan said the government should reveal how it settled on that number. “Do they even know how many people have served and how many family members there are?” she said. And she questioned whether the quota is high enough to accommodate all the Afghans who worked at Canada’s embassy in Kabul, including former security guards, cleaners and contractors.
So far, more than 17,000 Afghans have arrived in Canada – 7,300 under the special program for those who assisted the Canadian government and 10,045 under the humanitarian program, according to data from IRCC.
Vincent Hughes, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said resettlement applications for more than 15,000 Afghans are in various stages of processing.
The Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada have referred Afghans for the remaining spaces, but IRCC has not yet issued all of them invitations to apply, meaning some who may ultimately be approved for resettlement have not yet submitted their paperwork.
“The Government of Canada has received hundreds of thousands of communications from those expressing interest in coming to Canada since the fall of Kabul. Regrettably, this is a far larger number than we can bring to Canada,” Mr. Hughes said.
Non-profits have been leading the effort to bring vulnerable Afghans to Canada through the government’s humanitarian stream. But some of those groups say there have been challenges.
Dane Bland, the director of development at Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQ refugees escape persecution around the world, said his organization has helped bring about 150 Afghans to Canada so far. But, he added, he has heard from thousands more who need help.
Rainbow Railroad has been urging the government to make the organization what is known as a “direct referral partner.” This would give Rainbow Railroad the ability to recommend vulnerable refugees to the government for resettlement in Canada.
Because Rainbow Railroad isn’t a direct referral partner, Mr. Bland said, the organization has had to rely on the United States to recommend refugees to Canada on its behalf. He described the process as convoluted.
“We have not directly resettled individuals to Canada at this moment without the support of an external government,” he said.
Rachel Pulfer, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, said her organization has helped evacuate about 400 journalists from Afghanistan, 171 of whom have come to Canada.
She said 74 Afghan journalists who escaped to Pakistan are ready to make the trip to Canada, but have been unable to leave because of issues with exit permits. She said she hopes those issues are resolved soon.
“The government made big, big promises that are extremely hard to deliver on. We have been part of trying to find a solution, and it has been challenging for everybody involved,” she said, adding that it’s important to note that civil servants have also been working around the clock on this issue.
She said she would like the government to formally acknowledge the work of non-profits in arranging safe passage out of Afghanistan, as well as providing support to Afghans in third countries such as Pakistan and offering administrative support.
“Simply acknowledging that there is this NGO referral network and resourcing it, I think, is the way to go,” she said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.