‘No special hotline’: Canadian hurdles keep Afghan refugee offer out of reach, lawyers say

Click to play video: 'Trudeau discusses Afghanistan evacuations, says situation is ‘extremely difficult’'
Trudeau discusses Afghanistan evacuations, says situation is ‘extremely difficult’
WATCH: Trudeau discusses Afghanistan evacuations, says situation is ‘extremely difficult’ – Aug 18, 2021

Devastating imagery and pleas for help have emerged from Afghanistan in recent days as the Taliban tightens its grip on the country and cracks down on opponents.

Desperate Afghans plunged to their deaths from airplanes they clung to during takeoff, hoping to escape the insurgents’ wrath. Reports have also emerged of Taliban fighters going door-to-door, hunting down those who helped Canadian and U.S. forces.

As Afghans pleaded for help from the international community, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is running for re-election, pledged to bring 20,000 people from Afghanistan into the country. But questions quickly emerged about who exactly those lucky thousands will be, how soon Canada can bring them to safety, and the logistical hurdles Afghans face in trying to access this help — prompting concerns about whether the Canadian government is doing enough.

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“The announcement has left us with more questions than answers,” warned Nastaran Roushan, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau: Canada will accept as many Afghan refugees as possible'
Trudeau: Canada will accept as many Afghan refugees as possible

Canadian communications prove confusing

As the Taliban descended on Kabul and the country’s president fled, many living in Afghanistan went into “a complete state of panic,” according to immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges.

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“I have a number of applications for people from Afghanistan that have been existing from before this crisis occurred,” she said.

“These people are in the queue, but there’s absolutely no way to quickly follow up on a situation. There’s been no special hotline. There’s been no special email that you can send requests to expedite these kinds of files.”

As a result, relatives with loved ones stuck in Afghanistan are “absolutely panicking, trying to get their family out,” she said.

When pressed on the lack of communication with those on the ground, Trudeau pointed to the “fluid nature” of the situation.

“It’s extremely difficult. There is a very real concern that identifying people, putting out lists, sending very specific tweets on certain factors could actually endanger people on the ground,” he said.

“Because the Taliban, of course, are using all the different ways they can to track down people who they see as problematic or as opponents or adversaries within the country.”

When pressed on the lack of communication about the specifics of the refugee plan, Trudeau said that the main difficultly in getting refugees out of Afghanistan is actually getting them to the airport.

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“Let me be absolutely clear. The limiting factor on this is not paperwork, or not connections with the Canadian government,” Trudeau said.

“The limiting factor on getting people out of Afghanistan right now is people being unable to get to the airport.”

Click to play video: 'Afghan refugees board bus after arriving in Canada from Kabul'
Afghan refugees board bus after arriving in Canada from Kabul

According to the immigration lawyers fielding calls from those on the ground, however, the lack of communication is a much bigger hurdle than getting to the airport.

“The information that I’m hearing from other lawyers and from people who are contacting me from Afghanistan is that getting to the airport is not really the issue,” Desloges said.

“The issue is that there’s just no information out there. The system is so opaque.”

Desloges wasn’t alone in her concerns.

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“All we know is that the Canadian government website was updated to state that they will now expand the (refugee) program for vulnerable groups such as human rights leaders, people from the LGBTQ community,” said Roushan.

“But we don’t know anything else about the program.”

There’s no clear indication of who is eligible for one of the over 20,000 seats on an plane to Canada, Desloges explained, nor how to go about accessing this help.

“There’s only very general information,” Desloges said. “All of the lawyers have been talking to each other because we’re all getting these calls and nobody really knows what to tell people.”

As the confusion continues, planes are starting to arrive carrying people from Afghanistan. Trudeau confirmed that 92 people arrived on Canadian soil last night alone — and more will be coming.

“We’ve so far evacuated over 800 Afghans under our Special Immigration Measures, more than 500 of whom are already starting new lives in Canada,” said Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, in an emailed statement.

“The Canadian Armed Forces plan to send additional flights to Kabul when conditions permit, and processing under this program continues.”

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The 20,000 vulnerable Afghans who will be welcomed into the country “in the coming months,” Cohen added, will be those “who’ve been forced to flee their country.” The focus, he said, will be placed on “women and girls, religious minorities, LGBTQ individuals and others.”

“This is not an evacuation, but rather a major refugee resettlement initiative,” Cohen explained.
The initiative is totally separate from other plans the government had already announced to expand the number of refugees they’d bring into Canada this year, he added.

Despite this, many Afghans remain in the dark about how to secure one of these in-demand seats out of Afghanistan, not even the number of seats left remains definitive.

Speaking in an interview with Sky News early Wednesday morning, the U.K. Home Secretary defended her country’s own response by noting that Canadian officials told her the 20,000 figure was an “aspiration.”

“And that also includes their locally employed staff,” Priti Patel said.

Taliban descends on dissenters

Meanwhile, as citizens desperately seek to escape the Taliban, rumours have been spreading about a brutal crackdown.

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“On the ground, there’s plenty of reports of groups of Taliban fighters knocking door-to-door, looking for those who were, as they believe, conspirators with the Western forces,” said Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo.

“Certainly a lot of women (are) being denied access to education. Already, we’re seeing reports of that.”

The Taliban has been designated by Canada as a terrorist organization. They held power in Afghanistan for five years until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

A report from the U.S. State Department published during that time found women living under the Taliban were forbidden from attending school or work, were subject to rape and forced marriages by the Taliban, required women to wear burqas in public and refused to let women leave their homes without a male escort.

Punishments were severe. The report found the Taliban also carried out public executions, chopped off the hands of thieves and stoned women accused of adultery to death.

The conditions in Afghanistan improved over the two decades since the U.S. began its longest war in Afghanistan. A new constitution calling for women’s equality was adopted, the first democratic election was held, and nearly all Afghans had access to electricity.

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Click to play video: 'Taliban takeover sparks fears for future of Afghan women and girls'
Taliban takeover sparks fears for future of Afghan women and girls

Now, many fear a return to how things used to be — despite the Taliban’s promise of “amnesty” for those who fought against them.

“Time will tell what the rule of the Taliban will bring,” Momani said.

She said that while it’s “too early” too tell what the rule of the Taliban will bring, the developments in Afghanistan are “not good news” for minority groups in the country.

“We need to be careful. We need to be fearful,” she said.

“And more importantly, we need to watch out for the most vulnerable ethnic religious minorities and women.”

— With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun

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