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Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, said Afghans trapped inside the Taliban-controlled country are fearful for their lives, and those who have made it to neighbouring countries are not safe either.Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

An organization that helps LGBTQ refugees escape persecution around the world has heard from nearly 1,000 Afghans desperate to flee and is baffled by the Liberal government’s refusal to accept its assistance as a direct referral partner.

Kimahli Powell, the executive director of Rainbow Railroad, headquartered in Toronto, said Afghans trapped inside the Taliban-controlled country are fearful for their lives, and those who have made it to neighbouring countries are not safe either.

Mr. Powell said it is encouraging the federal government said it would resettle thousands of vulnerable refugees, including LGBTQ individuals. However, he said the government has not accepted its offer as a referral partner – meaning the organization would recommend vulnerable refugees to the government for resettlement in Canada. He said Rainbow Railroad wants to be able to help “safely and quickly resettle people and provide them with the support they need once they arrive.”

“Our requests for help spiked, and we’re left now three months into this situation, without a clear understanding of what the government’s plan is,” Mr. Powell said.

Canadian NGO is helping LGBTQ Afghans get to safety. But Ottawa is sitting on sidelines

Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said the government is working with the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership, which was established in 2020, to bring LGBTQ refugees to Canada. “This partnership includes Rainbow Railroad, and officials from IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] and the minister’s office have been in close contact with them on a regular basis.” Mr. Cohen said LGBTQ Afghans, both government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees, are arriving.

A government official, who The Globe and Mail is not identifying because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said a number of LGBTQ refugees that Rainbow Railroad identified are coming to Canada as government-assisted refugees, who were referred by a third party.

Mr. Powell said that “remains to be seen.” He said Rainbow Railroad has been looking at various methods to bring people to Canada and other countries, but that the Canadian government does not have a process by which his organization can directly refer cases, and that’s what they’re pushing for.

He said they have had to look at alternative partners, which might be able to refer refugee cases to Canada, but said that process is much more cumbersome and he’s not sure if it will happen.

Mr. Powell said he has had conversations with government officials, but that the discussions have been mostly led by his organization, which is trying to navigate how to assist the nearly 1,000 people.

“If there is a Canadian-based organization, such as Rainbow Railroad, that actually has a track record in relocating persons, why wouldn’t the government partner with them to help people – especially if the government signalled that these are people of high concern?” he said.

In August, former immigration minister Marco Mendicino said the government would welcome 20,000 vulnerable Afghan refugees, such as human-rights advocates, journalists and LGBTQ individuals. At the end of September, Ottawa doubled its resettlement target, vowing to bring to Canada 40,000 Afghan refugees from high-risk groups.

Mr. Powell said when this announcement was made, he believes Canadians assumed bringing LGBTQ persons to Canada was a priority for resettlement and that has not been the case.

“There are people at risk right now in Afghanistan that need support and Rainbow Railroad stands by ready with the tools to help identify and relocate them. We just need a partner with the Canadian government.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced on Dec. 2 the arrival of the first charter flight carrying privately sponsored refugees. In a press release, the federal department said “these latest arrivals are part of Canada’s humanitarian commitment to welcome vulnerable Afghan refugees – including women leaders, human rights defenders, persecuted minorities, LGBTI individuals and journalists.”

The government’s evacuation efforts have been criticized for months. Opposition MPs have said the government has been slow to move and resettle Afghans. Last week, members of Parliament agreed to create a special committee tasked with reviewing the Liberal government’s efforts to evacuate Canadian citizens and Afghans from the country. Meanwhile, veterans and volunteers have worked around the clock to support Afghans inside and out of the country.

Mr. Powell said his organization is keen to speak with Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, saying, “We’re just here waiting to help.”

He said Rainbow Railroad can identify people and provide referrals to Canadian missions outside Afghanistan. Mr. Powell said his organization has assisted the British government by referring vulnerable LGBTQ Afghans.

“We mostly need governments to identify us as a referring partner like the U.K. did,” he said.

Rainbow Railroad’s work in relocating LGBTQ persons from Chechnya is well-known, he said, and is one example of the Canadian government welcoming a group of individuals who are highly at risk and working with civil society to bring them to Canada.

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