Ottawa is telling more than 1,200 people with ties to Canada who are still in Afghanistan to stay in hiding while diplomats negotiate with the Taliban for their safe exit from the country.
The federal government initially wasn’t certain how many citizens and permanent residents remained in Afghanistan when the last U.S. forces left on Monday because many Canadians fleeing the Taliban takeover had boarded evacuation flights from other countries.
Officials have now seen the flight manifests from those other countries, leading them to estimate “there are roughly 1,250 either Canadian citizens, permanent residents or family members that are in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau told a news conference Tuesday.
“The situation is uncertain and we are trying very hard to get the Taliban to allow people to leave safely and we are also trying to get the airport reopened again,” Mr. Garneau said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said fewer than 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan and want to leave. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said British nationals, numbered “in the low hundreds,” were unable to get evacuation flights out of Afghanistan.
Mr. Garneau said he is advising Canadians to stay in a safe location as negotiations continue with the Taliban for guarantees that they will be able to either travel to a country bordering Afghanistan or depart on civilian aircraft once Kabul airport is reopened.
Those U.S.-led negotiations, including Canadian diplomats, are taking place in Doha, Qatar, with the aim of securing safe passage for citizens of Western countries as well as Afghans who worked for them after the Taliban were toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. The goal is to get Turkey and Qatar to take over the airport and operate civilian flights until every Westerner and Afghan ally is out of the country.
On Tuesday, there were more signs of the type of bureaucratic inefficiency that had plagued Canada’s evacuation mission since the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, including complicated forms and inability to reach officials in Ottawa.
Afghans, accepted to come to Canada and unable to get on rescue flights, received e-mails and text messages from the federal Department for Immigration and Refugees saying their Canadian-approved documents to leave the country were no longer valid.
“The facilitation letter for travel to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) was issued to you to help you and your family navigate checkpoints only during the period of the Canadian evacuation flights out of Kabul,” the department said. “As the Canadian evacuation flights have ended and no future flights are planned at this time, the facilitation letter no longer serves a purpose.”
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, who joined Mr. Garneau at the Ottawa news conference, told reporters his department wasn’t sure the documents would be accepted by the Taliban or countries bordering Afghanistan.
He later assured The Globe and Mail in an interview that his department will quickly issue new emergency visas and travel documents for all Afghans who have been processed to come to Canada.
“We didn’t want them to go to a checkpoint or travel to cross an international border with a document that might not get them through because that might place them at greater risk,” Mr. Mendicino said. “We are going to issue new documents with new language that says clearly they should be given safe passage to travel for the purposes of resettling in Canada.”
Mr. Mendicino stressed that these refugees will not have to reapply to Canada again. “It will be an automatic reissuing and it will be reissued as quickly as possible,” he said.
While Canada is advising its nationals and Afghan refugees to stay in safe houses, Mr. Garneau said Canadian embassies in countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Pakistan, have been ordered to help process anyone with a Canadian passport or emergency visa.
“We are going to be talking with Pakistan to tell them that if anybody does arrive at that border or other neighbouring countries, we would like them to facilitate their entry,” he said.
Retired major-general Denis Thompson, who is part of a group of veterans helping the Canadian Armed Forces’ former interpreters, fixers and support staff get out of Afghanistan, said he is urging people to stay in safe houses. But he said some Afghans who worked for Canada’s military have managed to make it into Pakistan.
“It is not for the faint-hearted. You need to navigate Taliban checkpoints and when you get to the border, your Canadian visa doesn’t actually substitute for a visa from the government of Pakistan,” he said. “But they are accepting people who can prove they are going to Canada.”
Pakistan is concerned about a flood of Afghan refugees but is willing to accept Afghans with Canadian passports or e-visas providing they do not stay in the country beyond 30 days, Mr. Thompson said. He added that should not be a problem since Pakistan International Airline has three flights a week to Toronto.
Mr. Thompson said 1,359 Afghans who worked with the Canadian Forces have made “principal applications” for special visas but only 20 per cent have been processed so far. That does not include their families, which would push the figure to more than 5,000 people, he added.
At an event in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why his government wasn’t providing financial help to Afghan refugees when Canadian veterans have taken measures such as selling their motorcycles and tapping financial institutions to raise money to buy baby supplies and clothing for those left in Afghanistan.
“Once again we see just how incredibly generous Canadians are,” Mr. Trudeau replied, but avoided saying whether his government would help the veterans groups with funding.
In addition to the 21,000 Afghans that Ottawa has already pledged to resettle, Mr. Mendicino announced on Tuesday that Canada will resettle another 5,000 refugees as part of a U.S.-led effort to help clear American and allied bases, where tens of thousands of people fleeing the Taliban takeover have been housed since evacuation flights began in early August.
Among the refugees that Canada intends to accept are Afghan women leaders, human-rights advocates, religious minorities and LGBTQ people who are currently on U.S. bases in the Middle East and Europe.
Although these refugees have had their identities confirmed by the Americans, they still need to be screened by Canadian immigration officials and meet the criteria for Canada’s humanitarian resettlement program.
More than 100,000 refugees have been airlifted out of Afghanistan by the U.S., Canada and other Western allies, amid deteriorating security conditions as Taliban forces advanced across the country.
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