Is Canada about to close the door on Afghans looking to flee the Taliban?

Fears are mounting that Canada will soon stop accepting applications from Afghans looking to escape the Taliban and resettle in this country.

The federal government is believed to be inching toward its goal of inviting 40,000 Afghans to resettle here under a special immigration program, with advocates saying they’ve been told that all the spots are expected to be filled by this summer.

They are pleading with the Liberal government to keep the door open, because thousands of Afghans who served the Canadian mission and supported taxpayers-funded projects remain stranded in Afghanistan.

“They (have) basically run out of spots. There’s no plan that we’re aware of to renew or extend the program. Yet, there’s still many thousands of people who are very qualified and haven’t heard anything,” says Lauryn Oates of the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

“The last I heard (two months ago), there were 2,000 spots left. Those will very quickly be filled and, when those are done, there’s no longer a pathway for the special immigration measures for Afghans, specifically. The program will just quietly go.”

Lauryn Oates of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan

In July, under tremendous public pressure to respond to the crisis emerging in Afghanistan as the Taliban took back control of the country, Canada had implemented the special immigration measures, first for its local Afghan staff and those who had “significant and enduring relationship” in supporting the Canadian mission.

A month later, it expanded to vulnerable groups such as women’s rights activists, human rights advocates, journalists and persecuted minorities. In December, another pathway was opened to the extended family members of former Afghan interpreters who previously resettled here.

In a joint statement this week, a coalition of organizations working to support the Afghans said they are “deeply troubled” by Ottawa’s plans to conclude the special program for Afghans once its commitment is fulfilled.

“Such a decision would leave thousands at high risk of Taliban violence — not least those who worked to advance gender equality under Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy,” said the three-page letter.

“Those same men and women are living in fear precisely because their support for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan makes them targets for violent retribution by the regime.”

To date, almost 16,000 refugees and vulnerable Afghans have arrived in the country, including some 7,000 who assisted the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. The rest belong to vulnerable groups, such as human-rights defenders, journalists and persecuted minorities. Some 10,565 of the 14,920 applications in the system have been approved. Advocates say they’ve been told thousands more invitations to the program have been issued, nearing the 40,000-person cap on the program.

Immigration officials said Canada’s commitment to the Afghan refugees has not wavered.

In the coming weeks, the immigration department will issue additional invitations to apply to individuals referred by Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defense, noted Aidan Strickland, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser.

“The Government of Canada has received hundreds of thousands of communications from those expressing interest in coming to Canada since the fall of Kabul. Regrettably, this is a far larger number than we can bring to Canada,” Strickland told the Star in an email.

“The unfortunate reality is that not everyone who expressed interest in coming to Canada will be eligible under the special programs for Afghanistan. … We are doing everything we can to help Afghans inside and outside of Afghanistan.”

Oates, whose group is among the signatories to the letter, said 17 of her local Afghan staff reached out to immigration officials for the special program, some as early as July, but that only five have been invited and received an application form. The rest have heard nothing back.

“One of the criticisms that’s been out there is that people haven’t heard anything. So Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has said, ‘We’ll respond to everyone and after those who are being invited are notified, the rest will get a notice that they won’t (be invited),’” said Oates.

Former Afghan refugee Sadiqa Basiri says her parents and two siblings have received threats from the Taliban for her previous work to build six girls’ schools, literary centers and Afghanistan’s first all-women community college, which was supported by the Canadian government.

Since August, she has made numerous attempts to apply to the special immigration program on behalf of her family but received only automated acknowledgments. There’s been no file number, no application forms.

“I just froze when I heard they’re ending the program. My heart just fell to my feet. I don’t have anyone else. My parents, brother and sister are my entire life. I’m the reason for what’s happening to them,” said Basiri, whose father was slapped and kicked by Taliban officials after they found a guitar in the house during a search in February.

“I know what the people in Ukraine are going through. Refugees have a right to be safe. I completely empathize with that. But why the double standards for Afghans? Are we not humans? Is it because of our skin colour?

In contrast to the Afghan permanent resettlement, the federal government has not put a cap on the number of displaced Ukrainians being allowed to arrive as visitors under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel.

Last week, the parliamentary Special Committee on Afghanistan released its report slamming the government’s slow response to the humanitarian crisis following the announcement of the withdrawal of the US and allied forces from the country last year.

“Even if the exact point at which the Taliban’s ascendancy became inevitable could not have been predicted with certainty, the Special Committee believes that greater prudence — and, therefore, a more proactive approach — was warranted in response to Afghanistan’s clearly worsening trajectory,” the report said.

Immigration officials were asked by Global Affairs Canada to make special immigration plans for local Afghan staff more than three months before Kabul fell to the Taliban, according to government briefing notes obtained under an access-to-information request.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, a vice-chair of the committee, said the Department of National Defense had vetted and referred 3,800 files of Afghans who served the Canadian mission, but immigration officials could only confirmed 900 of them. There were other individuals forwarded by Global Affairs Canada that remain outstanding, she added.

“Canada made a promise that we would bring them to safety and we have not fulfilled that promise. So if the government ends this program now, it would be a colossal, colossal, shameful moment in Canadian history to abandon these individuals,” Kwan said.

She also accused the government of “monkeying” around with the Afghan resettlement quota.

“There are applicants that were accepted and who made it to Canada to safety, or people who had made applications to come to Canada some years ago. The government just saw it to be convenient to now expedite those files and count them towards the 40,000,” Kwan said.

“I’m not saying that those individuals don’t deserve to get to safety. They should have gotten to safety some years ago and should not be part of this special immigration measure. The Liberals announced during the campaign that they would bring in 40,000 Afghans as a result of this current crisis. The reality is they cheated.”

The government must not close off the initiative but expand it as long as required to bring those individuals to safety, Kwan said.

Oates agreed.

“It is justifiable to extend the program and open more spots so that we can reach more people whose applications or inquiries were passed over for those that actually weren’t’ really eligible for them but came anyways,” she said.

“This is a way to make up for that.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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