In Pakistan, an Afghan journalist lives in a crowded guest house, watching his savings dwindle while he waits for an e-mail from Ottawa. A family of seven who spent a month holed up in a Kabul hotel are now safe in Qatar, but still don’t know when they’ll be able to rejoin their relatives in Canada. In Ukraine, an Afghan interpreter who risked his life working for the Canadian military is afraid to leave the hotel rooms he shares with 11 family members.
These are only a few of the stories told to The Globe and Mail by dozens of Afghans who say Canada abandoned them to bureaucracy following this past summer’s Taliban takeover.
Months after the Liberal government announced immigration measures aimed at resettling tens of thousands of Afghan nationals, many of those who believed they were eligible now find themselves in increasingly desperate situations while they wait for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to approve their applications.
Some are stuck in third countries. Those still in Afghanistan are bracing for a harsh winter as the country’s new rulers struggle to keep the population fed.
Interviews with bureaucrats and political staffers in Ottawa – as well as ex-soldiers and other Canadians involved in efforts to evacuate people from Afghanistan – suggest that missed warnings about the speed of the Taliban advance resulted in thousands of Afghans who worked with the Canadian military and government being left behind. A slow immigration system has since exacerbated the situation, leaving Canada-bound Afghans in awkward purgatory.
Alex Cohen, a spokesperson for newly appointed Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said the government’s work to rescue Afghans was unprecedented. Ottawa, he noted, had to design and implement an entirely new immigration program, process and vet thousands of applications, and then evacuate applicants from a war zone – all in a matter of weeks.
“Put simply: Canada had never done something like this before,” he said.
Mr. Cohen said the “major hurdle” in getting people out of Afghanistan is the fact that the Taliban control exit routes and constantly change the requirements for entry into neighbouring countries.
“This also means that Canada has no ability to send staff to assist applicants in Afghanistan,” he said.
Biometrics and other checks are being done after refugees arrive in third countries, he said, and he noted that IRCC has sent additional staff to key embassies, high commissions and consulates, though he did not give details. He said Ottawa is working to support refugees and their family members in third countries and assist them with travel to Canada.
As Ottawa’s immigration bureaucracy continues to struggle with the aftermath of the Afghan crisis, refugee and human rights advocates are pushing for an immediate response from the government.
A letter from the World Refugee & Migration Council addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mr. Fraser and new Foreign Minister Melanie Joly calls on Ottawa to clarify who qualifies for resettlement.
The letter says the current level of immigration processing capacity is too low to match “the magnitude and urgency” the situation requires, and that Canada should no longer require Afghan refugees to be recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order for them to qualify for resettlement. And it says Ottawa should work with allies to pressure the Taliban to allow at-risk people to leave Afghanistan.
The burden, according to letter’s signatories, should not fall only on bureaucrats. “There comes a point when political leadership is required, and when only ministerial direction can provide the authority needed to move matters forward,” the letter says.
Lloyd Axworthy, a signatory of the letter and former Liberal foreign affairs minister, said the federal government needs to do a better job of eliminating hurdles to bringing Afghans to Canada.
“There doesn’t seem to be a willingness to start with a fresh script and say, here is a very significant crisis taking place with people at risk that we promised that we would help. We put too many jumping hoops in the way, and that’s what the letter is about. Clarify. Call them refugees.”
In July, Marco Mendicino, who at the time was immigration minister, announced that Ottawa would resettle thousands of Afghans who had worked alongside Canadian troops and diplomatic staff, through a special immigration program. In August, despite failing to evacuate all the eligible Afghans in that group, the government said it would welcome 20,000 vulnerable Afghan refugees, such as human-rights advocates, journalists and LGBTQ individuals. Ottawa doubled its resettlement target at the end of September, vowing to bring in 40,000 Afghan refugees from high-risk groups.
Mr. Mendicino did not respond to interview requests.
According to Mr. Cohen, more than 3,600 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada to date, and 1,200 more are in transit around the world.
Conditions in Kabul are deteriorating. Aman Lara, a Canadian non-profit, provided safe housing to over 1,700 Afghans until it ran out of funding earlier this month. Eleanor Taylor, a retired Canadian lieutenant-colonel and volunteer chief of staff for the organization, said people who were evicted from the safe houses have been sleeping in parks and asking for blankets and mattresses.
Ms. Taylor said Canadian officials are working hard, but that what seems to be absent is “somebody with the authority to compel co-operation across departments, to make things happen.”
“There needs to be an overarching command and control structure that would compel co-operation between departments and that’s not there. There’s no one person in charge,” she said.
Abdul, a former translator for the Canadian military, lived in one of Aman Lara’s safe houses. He told The Globe he had moved his family to “a cheap and insecure hotel” in Kabul. Returning to his home province in southern Afghanistan was impossible, he said, because his work for NATO was too well known, making him a target for retribution from the Taliban or ISIS-K, the local affiliate of the Islamic State. He said he would soon run out of money, which might force his family to resort to sleeping on the streets. “We don’t have any safety now,” he added.
Maqsood, another former Canadian military translator, said his family home was destroyed by the Taliban last month as punishment for his collaboration with a foreign army. He told The Globe he had split his family into two groups, each of which fled in a different direction after they were forced to leave their safe house, as a precaution against all of them being captured at once. The men keep in contact with other former Canadian military staff still stuck in Afghanistan via a WhatsApp group titled “IRCC” – the government department they blame for their terrifying situation. The Globe is not providing Abdul and Maqsood’s last names, because they fear for their safety.
In Kyiv, Jawed Haqmal, a former Canadian military translator who left Afghanistan with assistance from The Globe and the Ukrainian government, now spends most of his days trapped in a trio of hotel rooms with 11 members of his extended family. They are afraid to go outside because the humanitarian visas they received from Ukraine in August expired more than six weeks ago. The short-term documents were issued on the assumption that the family would be swiftly admitted to Canada.
Frustration is also growing among the thousands of Afghans newly arrived in Pakistan. Some are former Canadian military translators who were evacuated to Islamabad with the help of the ex-soldiers they served with. Others are journalists or human-rights workers whose plane tickets and accommodations were paid for by NGOs such as the Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights, because they appeared to qualify for resettlement in Canada.
“Everyone is out of pocket because they were all dependent on monthly salaries” that they are no longer collecting, said Anees Ur-Rehman, a 31-year-old reporter who is waiting in an Islamabad guest house with dozens of other Afghans.
Mr. Ur-Rehman worked for the state broadcaster Radio Television of Afghanistan, as well as the English-language Kabul Times (and he assisted The Globe during a recent reporting trip to the Afghan capital). He first e-mailed IRCC with his application on Aug. 17 – two days after the fall of Kabul – and followed up more than half a dozen times. But, like everyone else in his guest house, he has yet to even receive a case number that would suggest his file was under consideration.
“We are all waiting to be evacuated to Canada, because no one wants to go back to Kabul, and people are getting scared,” he said.
The slow movement of Afghans who were supposed to be Canada-bound has strained relations between Ottawa and the governments hosting the refugees. Pakistan, for instance, has begun more closely screening Afghans flown into the country by Canadian NGOs, insisting that each passenger have approval from the Pakistani Interior Ministry before boarding one of the irregular flights from Kabul to Islamabad.
Ukraine, which used its special forces troops in Kabul to evacuate the families of both Mr. Haqmal and another former Globe translator, offered to help evacuate more Canada-bound Afghans after the successful mission on Aug. 28. But the offer dissipated as Mr. Haqmal and his family, along with other Canada-bound Afghans who arrived in Kyiv around the same time, remained in Ukraine far longer than anticipated.
Mr. Cohen said his office cannot comment on Mr. Haqmal’s case. He added that the time it takes to process an application varies based on a number of factors, such as the complexity of the application.
“In the last month, I have not heard from IRCC or the embassy. It’s really making me crazy. If it were only me waiting, I would not care. But what can I do with my kids? They need food, they need support, they need to go to school,” Mr. Haqmal said. (The Globe continues to pay for the Kyiv hotel rooms where Mr. Haqmal and his family are staying.)
“This is the part I get stuck on: People who didn’t put their lives on the line for Canada are already there, and we are stuck,” he said.
The case of three-year-old Mukhtar Amini is another that began as a good news story before it wound up mired in bureaucracy. In September, The Globe reported on the Qatari-assisted reunion of three-year-old Mukhtar with his father in Toronto. The two had been separated in the chaotic last days of the Western airlift from Kabul’s airport. (Mukhtar was originally called “Ali” by The Globe, since the rest of his family members were still in danger in Afghanistan.)
After Qatar flew Mukhtar to Toronto with assistance from the International Organization for Migration, The Globe contacted the Qatari government to let it know that the rest of the family – including Muhktar’s mother and his four older siblings – had been located in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. On Oct. 2, the Qatari government told the family to come to Kabul, with the intention of flying them to Doha the next day, believing they would be Canada-bound soon afterward.
That night, however, the Taliban changed the rules of departure. The militant group said it was no longer allowing Afghan nationals to leave unless they had papers showing they had been accepted for immigration by a foreign government. IRCC was unable to produce a document in time for an Oct. 3 flight, and the case of Mukhtar’s family has since been passed to Global Affairs Canada as a family reunion matter. A month later, Mukhtar’s mother and siblings are safe in Doha – but there’s still no guarantee that they’ll be able to come to Canada.
“Part of the problem has been people don’t want to necessarily leave without family members who have immigration issues,” such as relatives who are inadmissible to Canada for various reasons, said a government official who has been involved in the Afghan resettlement effort. “The hard part of the job has been telling people: ‘I’m sorry, this is the policy.’” The Globe is not naming the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The official said the federal government should have prioritized getting Canadian citizens, and those with family ties to Canada, out of Afghanistan before launching the special immigration program and promising to bring in 40,000 people.
Mr. Cohen said IRCC is continuing to process applications under the special immigration program for Afghans who have contributed to Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan and their families. Most applications, he added, were received after the fall of Kabul. Some applicants have used overland routes into neighbouring countries and have travelled onward to Canada.
He said the government works individually with each person and group to ensure they have necessary documents, and co-ordinates with authorities in countries that border Afghanistan to ensure officials are ready for refugees’ arrivals.
“These efforts include working with Pakistani officials to support ... applicants currently in Pakistan, and their onward travel to Canada,” he said, adding that as requirements for exit and entry to countries evolve, the government is adapting quickly amid a situation he described as “complex and tenuous.”
Afghans who have made it to safety are wondering why it is taking so long for the Canadian government to help their relatives who have been left behind despite being approved for resettlement.
A long-time Afghan employee of the Canadian embassy in Kabul said he was evacuated days before the Taliban took over. He said he was given three hours’ notice of his flight and had to make the painful decision to leave his parents behind.
The former employee, who asked not to be named out of fear for his family’s safety, added that he is worried the Taliban will look for relatives of those who helped Canada. He said he has followed up on his family’s application, and he was told it is still being processed.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story spelled Mukhtar Amini's name incorrectly. This version has been corrected.
The Afghan exodus: More from The Globe and Mail
For the Remembrance Day episode of The Globe and Mail’s news podcast, retired Corporal Robin Rickards spoke about how he is helping one of his old Afghan interpreters, Abdul Jamy Kohistany, to settle in Thunder Bay, Ont., with his family. Subscribe for more episodes.