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New documents reveal Ottawa’s election scramble to respond to Afghanistan crisis

Women with children gather outside a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office as they wait to receive non-food items in Kandahar on March 8, 2022. JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images

In the midst of last summer’s federal election campaign, Canada fired up an unusual emergency loan program for Afghan nationals who had fled Afghanistan but found themselves short on funds in a third country while waiting to come to Canada.

The establishment of the emergency loan program was one of at least four key initiatives taken by federal immigration officials in the midst of the general election campaign in response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that took many Western nations, including Canada, by surprise.

Documents describing these initiatives were recently released to Global News as a result of multiple requests under the federal Access to Information Act.

Read more: Afghan interpreters ask feds to deliver on promise to help endangered family members

But those urgent measures appeared to have little effect. Advocates say the election itself caused disruptions at the government department charged with rescuing refugees from the Taliban.

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“Within days [of the election call], it was clear that it wasn’t business as usual. People were unavailable. Everything just kind of froze for a couple of months, actually, and that had real implications for people’s lives,” Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said Tuesday in an interview from Dushanbe, Tajikistan where she is leading efforts to “rescue” 20 female colleagues and their families who have been trying to leave Afghanistan for Canada since last summer.

“Their cases are stuck in the system somewhere. And I can’t quite figure out where the clog is. I can’t really forgive that — picking the timing of an election over the lives of Afghans.”

The emergency loan program, described in one of the memos obtained by Global News via the ATI requests,  was designed to give Afghan nationals enough funds to cover “pre-departure costs [such as] shelter, food and other immediate needs while they are outside of Afghanistan and in a third country until they can travel to Canada.” But it’s unclear if that program — which Canada has only once ever offered before — made any difference.
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The other initiatives involved giving some Afghans in Canada an additional legal tool to stay in Canada as refugees; setting up a dedicated hotline to help staff at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) who had been overwhelmed at the time by thousands of phone calls and nearly 100,000 e-mails from Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban; and,  finally, to provide additional mental health support to Government of Canada employees suffering emotional distress as they tried to help those Afghans.

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Other advocates for Afghan refugees also complained privately to Global News this week about federal government “inefficiency and disorganization” then and now.

A series of written questions about these initiatives was put to the IRCC’s media relations department as well as current Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on Friday but neither office has, as of end of day Tuesday, been able to provide any response.

The Afghanistan crisis rapidly unfolded just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to call the 44th general election last August. The immigration minister at the time and all through the election campaign period was Marco Mendicino, who was also running for re-election in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence.

Mendicino was re-elected and would remain the immigration minister until Oct. 26 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named his post-election cabinet, putting Mendicino at public safety and elevating Nova Scotia backbench MP Sean Fraser to the immigration post.

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The memos reviewed by Global News show that, in the midst of the campaign, Mendicino was urged by his department to sign off on two urgent initiatives:

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  • The rare emergency loan program for Afghan nationals in third countries
  • The establishment of a dedicated hotline at Immigration Canada to deal with thousands of incoming calls for Afghan nationals.

Mendicino’s deputy minister Catrina Tapley also informed him, mid-campaign, of two other initiatives that bureaucrats under her supervision had decided to take:

  • A less rare, but infrequently used adjustment to the appeals process for Afghan refugees in Canada facing potential deportation back to Afghanistan
  • Providing resources for additional mental health supports for IRCC workers who may have been traumatized themselves as they tried to help Afghan families.

The measures Tapley recommended Canada rapidly put in place under Mendicino in the midst of an election to deal with the Afghanistan crisis may also provide a template for possible initiatives that Fraser may wish to consider to deal with the Ukraine crisis. Tapley continues to be the department’s deputy minister.

Fraser, in a statement his office issued last Friday, cautioned that Canada’s response to the Ukrainian crisis will be different than its response to the Afghanistan crisis. Most Afghans coming to Canada, for example, expect to settle in Canada permanently. That’s not the case with many of the 4 million Ukrainians who have fled their homeland.

“Most, if not all, of Ukraine nationals who are looking to come to Canada have left Ukraine, and are not coming to Canada as refugees,” Fraser said in a statement.

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“In addition, we’ve heard from the Ukrainian community that many people wanted to come to Canada temporarily seeking safe harbour while the situation unfolds, and they can return home once it is safe to do so.”

As of late last week, Canada had received 10,000 Afghan refugees, counting from August 2021, just as the federal election campaign started. The government’s goal is to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.

Read more: Taliban’s latest rules: Parks segregated by sex, media access cut, men’s grooming policed

Critics say Fraser, since taking over from Mendicino, has not pushed his department to make the kind of rapid changes necessary to respond to the emergency in Afghanistan.

“Since [the election], I’ve seen no progress at all on any of my colleagues’ files, and it’s getting exceedingly dangerous for them,” said Oates. “Our office has been visited by the Taliban. We’ve had many scary incidents and the clock is ticking.”

During the election, Tapley, the deputy minister, urged Mendicino to sign off on the emergency loan program for Afghans in transit to Canada even though her department was unable to provide any estimate as to how much that would cost or what kind of repayment rate Canada might expect. But she did caution that one consideration for the Canadian government: How to be sure that any funds provided by Canada were actually going to be used to help Afghan refugees get to Canada.

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“There are … important considerations surrounding the risks of providing funds to individuals in a country whose government is a listed terrorist organisation,” Tapley wrote.

Tapley didn’t give the campaigning Mendicino much time to think about it. Her memo was dated Sept. 10 and she wanted a decision two days later on Sept. 12.

Read more: Taliban’s latest rules: Parks segregated by sex, media access cut, men’s grooming policed

The government has only once before implemented such an emergency loan program: In 2018, Canada provided evacuation assistance to the “White Helmets” in Syria so they could get to a United Nations refugee camp in Jordan. But once in that camp, more normal and regular funding processes were in place to help those who wished to come to Canada.

Again, the government did not respond to requests from Global News to provide information about how many loans it made or plans to make.

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Oates said Tuesday neither her organization nor the refugees it works with were aware of this loan program.

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A few days after Mendicino signed off on the request for an emergency loan program for Afghans in third countries, Tapley came back to him to inform him of another decision his department was making — one that did not require ministerial approval — to make a one-time adjustment to an appeals process used by those whose refugee claim in Canada. This adjustment would make make it easier for Afghans whose refugee claim here had been denied to avoid deportation.

In any event, Canada currently has a “Temporary Suspension of Removals” in place for Afghan nationals which means no Afghan who is denied refugee status here in Canada is being deported.

On Aug. 19, 2021, almost as soon as the campaign got underway, Tapley asked Mendicino to decide within four days —  by Aug. 23 — if he would agree with her recommendation to set up a special immigration hotline to handle what she called the “ever-increasing volume of calls on Afghanistan.”

Tapley, in that memo, said that IRCC client support agents were only able to answer less than one in five incoming telephone calls and that 93,000 emails had piled up waiting for a reply — including 35,000 that had landed in an email inbox specially set up for Afghanistan. She said the normal standard of service was for her department’s officials to be able to answer at least 50 per cent of any incoming phone calls.

Read more: Afghanistan ranked unhappiest country in the world: report

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The decision to re-allocate IRCC resources to help with the Afghanistan crisis was expected to have a significant impact, though, everywhere else in the department. Tapley warned Mendicino that his government — which, at time time, was fighting a close contest for re-election — could suffer some criticism for this re-allocation.

“Introducing a dedicated telephone line will help the department provide timely assistance and address inquiries for clients affected by the crisis in Afghanistan, but clients in other streams, including their representatives, are likely to be vocal with their criticism on social media.”

And yet, dedicated phone lines and new e-mail procedures appears to have little impact.

“I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve tried to call and you can spend the whole day calling,” said Oates on Tuesday from Tajikistan. “This just eats up an extraordinary amount of energy and time. In our case, we are an organization that works on women’s human rights in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan happens to be the country right now, where women’s rights are at risk to a greater degree than anywhere else in the world.

“We’re dealing with an immense emergency that needs our time and attention. And so having to draw so much time and attention in trying to contact Canadian government institutions isn’t helping at all.”

 

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