The federal Liberal government is facing calls to intervene amid reports that Pakistan is preparing to arrest and expel Afghan refugees, many of whom are waiting to escape to Canada.
The Liberal government promised in August 2021 to resettle 40,000 Afghans who have fled their country to escape the Taliban.
That includes thousands of Afghans with connections to Canada, including former interpreters who served alongside the Canadian Armed Forces.
But only about 27,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada more than a year later, with thousands waiting in Pakistan for word on when they can depart.
Now there are fears that Pakistan will start arresting and deporting Afghans who have sought temporary refuge, including hundreds already approved to come to Canada, at the end of the month.
The Pakistan government has set a deadline of Dec. 31 for foreigners without visas, or with expired visas, to leave. If not, they face the risk of arrest and deportation.
The fear is that if sent back, they will face persecution or death at the hands of the Taliban.
“This threat will compound what is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises ever,” said Wendy Cukier of Lifeline Afghanistan, an organization that has been helping bring Afghan refugees to Canada.
“Canada must use every means at its disposal – diplomacy, humanitarian aid, even trade negotiations and economic partnerships – to persuade Pakistan to work with Canada to resolve this issue.”
The Canadian government has received assurances from Pakistan that it will not arrest or deport Afghans after the Dec. 31 deadline, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Dubois said in a statement on Friday.
“While there have been concerns that some Afghan refugees in Pakistan may be returned to Afghanistan or jailed after the Dec. 31 expiration of this waiver, the government of Pakistan has indicated that the only enforcement action that could be taken against foreigners overstaying their visas will be the reimposition of fines and potentially being blacklisted from returning to Pakistan,” she said.
“Canada appreciates the ongoing efforts by the government of Pakistan to facilitate the safe passage of Canada-bound Afghan refugees,” Dubois added.
“We continue to advocate for streamlined procedures and strengthened protections for vulnerable Afghans and appreciate Pakistan’s support in helping secure routes of safe passage.”
But that is cold comfort to NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who says she has been warning the government about the impending deadline since the Pakistan government first announced its plan in October.
Kwan pointed to numerous reports in recent weeks of Pakistan authorities checking foreigners’ visas and making arrests as proof of the threat.
“The situation on the ground for people who are trying to escape persecution from the Taliban is that this is not reassuring at all,” she said. “The reality is that they are living in fear every day.”
Kwan said she has personally received text messages about Pakistani police having raided a hotel where Afghan refugees were staying.
“And the only way I’m told that people cannot get arrested in that process is to pay heavy bribes,” she said.
“The reality is that people have been hiding, and they have not been working. They don’t really have the resources to be able to afford to pay these hefty bribes. That is what’s happening on the ground for people.”
The federal government has been repeatedly criticized for the pace of its work to bring Afghan refugees to Canada, facing anger and frustration over delays and what many see as a lack of urgency.
Kwan echoed Cukier’s call for the government to put whatever pressure possible on Pakistan not to act on its Dec. 31 deadline, and for Ottawa to speed up resettlement efforts.
“There are people who served Canada, they are the loved ones of people who put their lives at risk in serving Canada, and now the Taliban is hunting them down aggressively,” she said.
“So, the government needs to make good on their promise that they would bring these Afghans to safety.”