Usman’s father, who used to guard Canada’s embassy in Kabul, made a rare trip outside their place to pick up some food a week ago and never returned. Usman fears the Taliban have taken his father and that he and his family will be next.
This is what life is like for Afghans who worked for Canada’s diplomatic and military missions in Afghanistan and who were promised refuge in Canada, but who along with their families have been left behind.
Usman said that usually his uncle would venture out in public on the family’s behalf. But last Monday, he wasn’t able, so his dad went instead and now his phone is off. “Everyone is crying, like [what] if they find us or if they killed my father and we don’t know,” he said. The Globe and Mail is identifying Usman only by his first name because he fears for his safety.
The 20-year-old said the Taliban threatened his father in a phone call in March, calling him a slave to Westerners and promising to find him. “Since that time, we are changing our location. Unfortunately, it just happened and it’s very bad.”
This past year, Usman, acting as an interpreter for his father, has done everything he could to bring his family to Canada. He has been e-mailing Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) more times than he can count. And he also enlisted the help of Canadian lawyers to advocate on his father’s behalf.
“We e-mailed them so many times, also applied through web forms,” he said, adding that all he received in return was “an auto-reply, nothing else.”
It’s been one year since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, sending governments scrambling to evacuate their own citizens and promising Afghans who assisted their work in the country refuge.
Many who believe they are eligible for resettlement in Canada have not heard from IRCC, and feel completely abandoned.
And the situation on the ground is only becoming more dangerous. The Globe reported in May that Afghans who worked as interpreters for the Canadian military have been beaten and tortured by the Taliban while waiting for Ottawa to help them.
Last July, as the Taliban made sweeping gains across the country, the Liberal government announced special immigration measures aimed at resettling tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who worked alongside Canadian troops and at Canada’s embassy, to provide them a safe haven from Taliban reprisals. The government later vowed to bring additional vulnerable Afghans to safety, including women’s-rights activists and LGBTQ Afghans.
The government said it would resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees through three programs: 18,000 through the program for Afghans and their families who assisted the Canadian government, 17,000 through a humanitarian stream, which is a mix of government-sponsored and privately sponsored refugees, and 5,000 through a pathway to permanent residency for extended family members of former interpreters already in Canada.
So far, more than 17,000 Afghans have arrived in Canada – 7,300 under the special program for those who assisted the Canadian government and 10,045 under the humanitarian program, according to data from IRCC. The federal department does not provide specific numbers for those who may have been welcomed as extended family members of former interpreters.
Meanwhile, anxiety is growing among Afghans like Usman who have not heard anything from IRCC, and are worried that the program is coming to an end.
Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the government has not closed the special program for those who assisted the Canadian government.
However, she said: “Of 18,000 spots available through the program, we have 15,000 applications, which are in various stages of processing. [Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence] have shared referrals with IRCC for the remaining spots.”
Ms. Strickland said Ottawa is navigating “a constantly evolving situation, where Canada has no military or diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. The key challenge, she said, is that many Afghans in need are in the country and movement in and out is “very difficult and dangerous.”
Moving people, she said, also depends on whether Afghans have the right documents to travel. Each country sets its own entry and exit requirements and determines if and when these requirements are changed.
Veterans and volunteer organizations have spent the past year helping Afghans complete paperwork and evacuating them to safety, but they are growing particularly concerned about people who are still waiting for their application to be approved.
Brian Macdonald, executive director of Aman Lara, a veteran’s group that has rescued thousands of Afghans approved for resettlement in Canada, said he estimates that while thousands of approved Afghans remain in the country, thousands more are waiting for answers from the government.
“We are good at getting people out. The challenge is we can only move people that are approved by the government of Canada,” he said.
He said the government should consider and approve the many people his organization has heard from, who are still waiting to hear from Ottawa. Mr. Macdonald also said Aman Lara does not believe there should be any cap on admitting Afghans who assisted Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
Oliver Thorne, executive director of Veterans Transition Network, which has also rescued thousands of Afghans and continues to help them reach safety, said he is surprised to be doing this work a year later.
“Progress has been made, but a year later, we’re still talking about thousands of people who have not heard back and I just can’t quite understand why. It seems to me that the government has not dedicated the resources that we need to tackle this in a timely manner.”
Mr. Thorne is also looking for assurances from Ottawa that no one who assisted Canada’s mission will be left behind. “We understand that Canada may only be able to support a certain number of people. … However, we really believe that the [special program] should be extended for any Afghan who helped Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
And applications need to be processed faster, he said, because thousands of people are living with an extraordinary amount of uncertainty.
Sadia, who worked on a Canadian-funded aid project that aimed to empower women and girls, recently hurried her family out of Afghanistan and into neighbouring Pakistan after learning that the Taliban had put her name on the top of a hit list. The Globe is using a pseudonym instead of her real name because she fears for her safety.
The Globe first reported Sadia’s story in June. At the time, she said that 200 Afghans, mostly women who worked on Canadian-funded aid projects in Afghanistan, were being tracked down by the Taliban and were in hiding after the militants obtained their names from a confiscated cellphone. Months later, the Taliban are continuing to search for them, she said.
“The Taliban are hunting all GAC local staff. They’re hunting them,” she said in a recent interview. While she has made it to safety in Pakistan, she and her family are there on a temporary visa and she fears that they will be deported back to Afghanistan if they are not approved for resettlement to Canada.
She said she doesn’t understand why her manager has been evacuated to Canada while she and others have not. “They provided safety only to her and the real people who have worked in the field, who really supported women’s rights and the Canadian program, are left behind.”
Mohammad Salim’s case is similar. Mohammad Salim, another former security guard at Canada’s embassy in Kabul, said his life has become miserable as he and more than 100 guards are stranded in Afghanistan. The Globe is only identifying him by his first name because he fears Taliban reprisals.
“We have to shift our houses because the Taliban is seeking us … I don’t carry my mobile phone because if they guess you worked with the international community, they will search you, they will ask for your phone and you have to enter your code. If you don’t, they hit you and they arrest you.”
Mohammad Salim said he sends reminder e-mails to IRCC two or three times every month but only receives an auto-reply. “This is not my personal problem, but all of my team has the same problem,” he said.
The prospect of Canada’s allies being abandoned in the country is garnering mounting criticism from those who have been working to help Afghans reach safety.
Retired major-general David Fraser said he’s still getting e-mails from people who need help. “What is wrong with our Canadian bureaucracy?”
He said Afghans turn to concerned citizens for help because Ottawa “doesn’t seem to have the ability to deliver anything except words from a minister and silence from the bureaucracy.” He said people deserve an answer – something the Immigration Minister promised would happen months ago – but hasn’t happened.
“If they don’t qualify, tell them so they can look for another path. But don’t leave them dangling.”
Lauryn Oates, the executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said she is concerned about the government closing the program for Afghans who assisted the Canadian government.
“It feels like a betrayal to not only the living, breathing human beings we are leaving behind, but also to all the values we promoted in Afghanistan: the advancement of women’s rights, human rights and democratic development.”
Opposition MPs are also calling on the government to do more. Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Hallan said Afghans are stranded in Afghanistan and in third countries, ignored by the Liberal government. He said they deserve better and they deserve action.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said instead of expeditious processing, the government’s application process is mired in bureaucratic red tape. Ms. Kwan said the NDP have been urging the government to renew and expand the special immigration program to save lives.
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