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Afghan refugees who supported Canada’s mission in Afghanistan prepare to board buses after arriving in Canada, at Toronto Pearson International Airport, Aug. 24, 2021.MCpl Genevieve Lapointe/Reuters

The UN refugee agency says it is concerned about the impact of Canada’s immigration backlog on the federal government’s commitment to resettle the world’s most vulnerable people, including Afghans who risk being targeted by the Taliban as they await refugee protection.

Gillian Triggs, assistant high commissioner for protection at the United Nations refugee agency, said Canada’s immigration backlog of more than two million applications is “very distressing.”

Refugee advocates and the opposition parties in Ottawa have repeatedly expressed concern that Canada’s overrun immigration system is delaying resettlement for refugees.

Ms. Triggs, who met senior government officials in Ottawa Wednesday, said refugees face increased risks the longer their cases are stuck in government processing.

“I will be raising with the relevant deputy ministers and others our concerns about that backlog. What it does, of course, is expose people to the kind of dangers that you’re raising, of torture, attacks – the very dangers, of course, that underpin why they have refugee status in the first place,” Ms. Triggs said in an interview.

“The whole point of the need for refugee protection is that that needs to be fast. You cannot leave people in backlogs and pipelines for many months or, in some cases in some countries, for years.”

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Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail reported that Afghans who aided Canada’s military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have been tortured by the Taliban while they struggle to navigate federal government red tape.

Concerns grew further on May 14 when a 24-year-old Afghan man who was urgently seeking protection from Canada was shot dead by the Taliban. While Ms. Triggs was careful not to comment on specific cases, she expressed concern about the fate of Afghan women, who now face more restrictions under Taliban rule.

Ms. Triggs said the COVID-19 pandemic bogged down immigration processes in many resettlement countries, such as Canada, which are now trying to catch up amid an “unsustainable” increase in the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide. An unprecedented 100 million people have been forcibly displaced by conflict, violence, human-rights violations and persecution, the UN refugee agency announced Monday.

“Part of the advocacy that we will engage in is to encourage governments to look at their processes to see if they can be made what we call fair and fast,” Ms. Triggs said.

She said she is not qualified to suggest specific system changes for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), but cited instances in which other countries have forgone their “cumbersome” immigration policies in the interests of urgency. For example, she said Poland, Slovakia and Moldova immediately opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees earlier this year when Russia invaded.

She also said a move toward digital application systems will speed up processing in resettlement countries.

IRCC did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has previously said the Liberal government’s investments in additional resources, including $85-million to help reduce the backlogs and 500 new processing staff, should help IRCC return to its prepandemic processing times by the end of the year.

Ms. Triggs said resettlement programs are available to less than 1 per cent of globally displaced people, which is why she said governments need to work to address the root causes of mass displacement. She said Canada can be a leader on this front, particularly in Central America, where violence and persecution have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

“Canada can play a role in looking at root causes in the region, at stabilizing populations, advocating for investments for finding ways to deal with gender inequality, with the abuse of women and girls, poverty and of course, instability,” she said.

Ms. Triggs is in Ottawa for a meeting of the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework Support Platform, a multicountry initiative that encourages greater responsibility sharing on forced displacement in Central America and Mexico. Canada is currently chairing the platform, with a focus on the needs of women and girl refugees and migrants.

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