Habib Zahori is used to telling other people’s stories. He’s an Afghan journalist who lives in Ottawa and worked for The Washington Post and New York Times in Afghanistan.
Zahori moved to the United States for university in 2014 and crossed the border into Canada on a bicycle in 2016 to make a refugee claim after his father was kidnapped by the Taliban.
Now he’s trying to reunite with his younger brother and sisters who frantically escaped Kabul International Airport last August when the Taliban seized control of the country. They’re living in the Netherlands.
“I am a man who lives two lives,” Zahori said. “I am here physically, and mentally I am with my family. I think about them all the time.”
Canada, like many Western nations, has committed to helping people fleeing Afghanistan because they fear the Taliban. This includes people who worked with the Canadian military following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to permanently resettle 40,000 Afghans in Canada. As of mid-April, about 10,000 people have arrived in Canada.
The slow pace of assistance has disturbed many Afghans. On Monday, a group of interpreters who worked with the Canadian military accused the government of making “fake promises.”
They told a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan that their family members, many of whom are stuck overseas because of onerous paperwork, should be treated with the same level of urgency as Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.
“I appreciate what is being done for Ukrainians, (but) we want to be treated the same,” said Safiullah Mohammad Zahed.
Zahed, who worked as an interpreter for Canada’s armed forces, told the committee 12 of his family members are currently hiding in a single room in Afghanistan waiting for their turn to come to Canada. Other interpreters said their families are burning documents that prove any connection to Canada to avoid detection by the Taliban.
One of the programs the government created to bring vulnerable Afghans to Canada is meant specifically for journalists and anyone who helped Canadian journalists.
To qualify for this special humanitarian program, a person must have already left Afghanistan, must be living in a situation that the government considers untenable, and must be sponsored by a humanitarian group, such as the UN Refugee Agency.
All of Zahori’s siblings either worked as journalists in Afghanistan or were “fixers” or translators for Western media outlets. But because they escaped Kabul on a Dutch military flight and are now living in Amsterdam, they’re not eligible for the special humanitarian program.
That’s because they have what the government calls a “durable solution” in the Netherlands, meaning Canada considers the Netherlands a safe country that can offer them protection from the Taliban.
Zahori said this policy is unfair and unjust because it doesn’t recognize the family ties his siblings have to Canada.
He wants the government to do more to reunite him with his family, especially since he’s a permanent resident of Canada, married to a Canadian and has a Canadian son.
“There’s this world of very privileged people who can travel around the world without any problem, and then there are the rest of us,” Zahori said.
Afghans refugees treated differently
Zahori’s struggle to reunite with his family is happening when global attention is focussed on the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
Canada has pledged to give temporary residence to an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. Ukrainians can live, work and study in Canada for up to three years. This program applies to all Ukrainians, regardless of the country they are currently living in.
Canada has also eliminated many visa requirements for Ukrainians, including biometric security screening for some applicants.
There are also plans to create a fast-track family reunification program that will offer permanent residence to Ukrainians with relatives already living in Canada.
“The Canadian government is opening all the doors for Ukrainians (and) they absolutely should have our full support,” Zahori said. “That said, I can’t help but think – what a hypocrisy.”
Zahori said he’s spoken with other Afghans who are trying to bring their relatives to Canada but have hit similar bureaucratic roadblocks.
“This is like a very, very clear example of prejudice,” Zahori said.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has explained these different approaches by saying Ukranians only want to stay in Canada temporarily. He said efforts to reduce administrative burdens on Ukrainians, such as creating the new temporary visa program and eliminating certain requirements, are meant to facilitate this desire.
“In our conversations with the Ukrainian community, we heard that many people wanted to come to Canada temporarily, not as refugees, while the situation unfolds (in Ukraine) and then return home,” said Fraser’s spokesperson Aidan Strickland in an email statement.
“Individuals would be considered refugees when there are no other durable solutions. That is not currently the case in Ukraine because people have fled to the ‘relative stability of safe neighboring countries’ where Canadian officials can process applications.”
But migration experts say that’s what nearly all refugees want: to be free of danger and to live in a safe place until they can return home.
“The discrimination here I think comes from giving Ukrainians the benefit of the doubt – that they will return home – and not other groups,” said Serena Parekh, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on global refugee resettlement.
There’s also nothing stopping Ukrainians from filing an asylum claim once they arrive in Canada. Domestic and international law gives everyone the same right to seek protection in Canada.
The government must also consider humanitarian applications made by anyone who wants to stay in Canada, even after their temporary visa has expired. If an applicant has a job, owns a business, or has a family, the government will evaluate these factors before deciding whether to send them back to their country of origin.
“The reality is that none of us know what is going to happen in Ukraine,” said Christina Clark-Kazak, a migration expert and professor at the University of Ottawa.
Clark-Kazak said Ukrainian-Canadians have successfully persuaded the government to help fellow Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion in ways no other refugees have previously been helped.
And while this is a good thing, she said, Canada also has a “moral obligation” to help the people of Afghanistan because of the role the Canadian military played in the two-decades-long conflict in the country.
“Individual circumstances will determine whether or not people decide to go back and when they decide to go back,” she said. “Just like when they flee.”
-With files from The Canadian Press.