Canada is now using a newly approved air bridge to evacuate thousands in Afghanistan fleeing from the Taliban in Kabul, Canada’s immigration minister said Sunday. By the federal government’s count, he said “12 flights and a little more than 1,100 individuals” have been flown out so far.
“We have reached an air bridge agreement that allows Canadian-bound Afghans to board allied air carriers and in turn, allied bound Afghans to board Canadian planes,” Marco Mendicino said.
“This means that Canada has the ability to leverage more evacuation capacity through the air bridge jointly established by the coalition.”
Mendicino said he as asked for “accelerated” processing of Afghans looking to come to Canada, and that “all red tape be cut without compromising security.”
Canada and the United States have been scrambling to evacuate citizens and Afghans who fear retribution after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last week, in a stunning rout that left thousands rushing onto the tarmac of Kabul’s international airport in a desperate bid to escape.
Canada has pledged to evacuate 20,000 Afghans in the past, many of which are now refugees in fear of retaliation from the Taliban. Not all 20,000 are expected to arrive this year, and Mendicino said Afghans seeking refugee status will have to find their own way out of Afghanistan to designated areas for biometric screening.
Mendocino said Canadian personnel “have the full operational discretion to take whatever actions are necessary to get as many people into the airport and onto those flights as quickly as possible.”
Addressing reporters at the same news conference, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canada would continue to evacuate people from Kabul for “as long as it is safe to do so.”
However, he said the schedule for flight departures and landing is “very tight” due to the violence and crowding near the city’s airport and a “major challenge” for personnel.
“The security situation is extremely dire right now,” said Sajjan, adding that it was paramount that planes depart within their scheduled windows.
“When Canadian planes land in Kabul, Canadian Forces members board as many passengers as they can.”
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Sajjan said three flights carrying Afghan citizens and permanent residents have made their way into Canada.
The first left on Thursday, carrying 175 at-risk Afghans and 13 foreign nationals. The second departed on Friday, carrying 106 people, “including Afghan nationals, Canadian citizens and their families, one permanent resident” and allied military personnel, Sajjan said. The most recent flew out on Saturday, transporting 121 Canadian citizens and their family members.
But as Canada rushes to safely evacuate eligible Afghans, concerns have been mounting for women and girls, who could be subject to severe restrictions under Taliban law.
“The Taliban are the same Taliban of 20 years ago,” said Maryam Monsef, Canada’s Women and Gender Equality Minister.
“A legitimate government would immediately cease the violence, the femicide, the genocide, the rapes, the looting and a legitimate government would return immediately to an inclusive peace negotiation that includes women and minorities in a meaningful way.”
Monsef vowed to create space for the voices of Afghan women, girls and minorities.
“Their voices must be heard, they must shape Canada’s response and the global response,” she said.
In the meantime, the U.S. has said that 18 Boeing 777-300s, which can carry around 400 passengers in each aircraft depending on the planes’ layouts, will be used to help transport people who have already been evacuated from Afghanistan.
U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Sunday that nearly 11,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan since Friday.
“Our first priority in Kabul is getting American citizens out of the country as quickly and as safely as possible,” he said.
“We’re also working to move our Afghan allies who stood with us side by side and other vulnerable Afghans, such as women leaders and journalists out of the country.”
— With files from Reuters and the Canadian Press