The founder and managing partner of a Kabul law firm that spent years working for Canada’s embassy in Afghanistan says many of his colleagues were left behind and are in hiding, so he is urging the federal government to quickly bring them to Canada.
Saeeq Shajjan’s firm, Shajjan & Associates, was hired by the Canadian embassy in Kabul and Global Affairs Canada in 2013, and the contract is valid until Dec. 31. Mr. Shajjan and his family were first evacuated to Qatar after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August, then travelled to Canada. Twenty-nine of his colleagues and their families were not as fortunate.
He said the past four months have been draining and he has given no thought to starting his new life in Canada. “I’m really concerned about the safety and security of everyone who is left behind,” he said.
“It’s so difficult to receive these calls and messages from my colleagues. Some of them, they’re literally in hiding. They would move from one place to a different place to make sure that they keep their safety and they’re not traced.”
In July, Marco Mendicino, who was immigration minister at the time, announced that Ottawa would resettle thousands of Afghans who had worked alongside Canadian troops and diplomatic staff through a special immigration program. The government later promised to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has said that helping people inside Afghanistan is particularly challenging because the Taliban control exit routes, so Ottawa has to work with partners on the ground to ensure their safe passage.
The Fall Economic Statement, released Tuesday, proposes providing $1.3-billion over six years, starting in 2021-22, and $66.6-million in future years to support the resettlement of Afghans.
Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Mr. Fraser, said the government expects to fulfil its commitment over the next two years.
Mr. Cohen said he cannot comment on specific cases due to privacy and security reasons. He said the special immigration program includes Afghans who “had a significant and enduring relationship” with the Canadian government, criteria that is assessed by either Global Affairs Canada or the Department of National Defence.
“Over the past months, we’ve added resources, cut red tape and acted quickly to process applications faster and get refugees out of Afghanistan,” he said, adding that 5,700 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada so far.
Mr. Shajjan said the government first needs to acknowledge that his colleagues need help. He said that in the eyes of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada it may look like they have not even applied for resettlement. He said they have sent the necessary introductory e-mail and information, but they have not heard back from IRCC.
“We have had this enduring relationship with the government of Canada from 2013 to present. We have all the necessary documents that prove this relationship. We have recommendation letters that confirm this … and the level of threat that we are facing,” he said.
He said American friends helped him and his family get to Qatar. After routine security tests, they travelled to Canada. It took about a month for Ottawa to process his case, he said. Meanwhile, his colleagues contacted IRCC in early August and still haven’t heard a thing.
He said his partner made it to the United States along with a colleague whose family is stuck in Kabul. Yet another has made it to Denmark with his family, and another is in Islamabad.
He shared a letter written by a Canadian official in July that says they have personal knowledge of threats made against Mr. Shajjan and his firm because of their work with the Canadian embassy. Despite this, he said, his colleagues continue to wait.
Kristin Taylor, a managing partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell in Toronto, said that when she heard about Mr. Shajjan’s circumstances in October on the CBC’s The Current, she reached out to him to see how her firm could help.
“It seemed to me that abandoning lawyers, our lawyers, in the middle of an incredible crisis where their safety was completely jeopardized by the Taliban – there had to be something that as professionals that we could do to help our colleagues,” she said.
Ms. Taylor said Mr. Shajjan provided a list of individuals at his firm, plus their family members. She said they began lobbying IRCC on their behalf in the belief that lawyers in Canada, working in the same time zone and without any language barriers, would be able to move them through the process quickly. That was not the case.
“We’ve been stymied. Auto responses, not even callbacks,” she said. If someone does answer the phone, they say there’s nothing they can do. She said it feels like hitting a brick wall.
So her firm has been reaching out to managing partners at other law firms, she said, encouraging them to write MPs.
“We’re not living up to the commitments that we’ve made to people, and that’s very troubling.”
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