Why is Ottawa turning away from Afghans who helped Canada? ‘We’re failing them’

Click to play video: 'Relatives call on Canada to help people escape, nearly 1 year after Afghanistan fell to Taliban'
Relatives call on Canada to help people escape, nearly 1 year after Afghanistan fell to Taliban
WATCH: Almost a year after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the Canadian special immigration program for Afghans is nearing capacity. Abigail Bimman reports – Jul 15, 2022

Concerns is growing about the fate of thousands of Afghans that Canada promised to resettle when the Taliban took control of the country last year.

The federal government is reportedly winding down the special immigration program to bring 18,000 Afghans who assisted Canada. That includes interpreters for the military and their families.

So far, 15,070 applications have been received with 10,730 approved, but only 7,205 have arrived in Canada, according to latest figures by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) as of July 14.

Another 9,435 have arrived through a humanitarian program for vulnerable Afghans, including LGBTQ people and human-rights defenders.

Saba Bashiry (pseudonym), an Afghan-Canadian human rights activist has been pressing the government about her six family members who are still in Afghanistan after nearly a year. Despite filing a vast amount of paperwork, the family still hasn’t had heard anything but auto-responses from the immigration department.

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“They are living in fear,” she told Global News.

Reports about the program winding down were extremely disappointing for Bashiry to hear.

“It just broke my heart. I feel betrayed,” she said. “Are we not human?”

Click to play video: 'NDP accuses Ottawa of losing 2,900 files of Afghans who helped Canada'
NDP accuses Ottawa of losing 2,900 files of Afghans who helped Canada

Despite reports of the program winding down, IRCC is pushing back and told Global News the government has not closed the program.

“The Government of Canada has not closed the Special Immigration Program for those who assisted the Government of Canada,” an IRCC spokesperson told Global News Friday.

“We continue to process applications as quickly as possible and IRCC will continue to communicate directly with approved applicants in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions,” they said.

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The government conceded that there’s enough interest to fill the 18,000 spots through the special program and that there are, in fact, only 18,000 spots.

“To suggest the program is open when the 18,000 spots are spoken for, they’re lying to themselves and they’re lying to the public,” Jenny Kwan, NDP MP for Vancouver East, told Global News.

“And the sad news is this: the people who’ve been left behind, their lives are in jeopardy. If we don’t do anything about it, they will be hunted down by the Taliban. It’s a matter of time before that happens.”

In total, Canada has committed to welcoming 40,000 people from Afghanistan through special government-assisted programs and other routes, including private sponsorship.

Sally Armstrong, journalist and author of ‘Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan’, said Canada’s response so far has been “shameful” with long delays and a lack of information.

“I feel the government has handled the entire file very badly,” said Armstrong, who is also the founding member of Lifeline Afghanistan.

“It’s taken too long. We’ve left people waiting. We don’t provide information and there’s really no excuse for that,” she told Global News.

Click to play video: 'Ongoing calls to bring more Afghan refugees to Canada'
Ongoing calls to bring more Afghan refugees to Canada

Canadian charities helping Afghans say many with permission to travel to Canada are unable to get to neighbouring countries to fly here because they do not have the paperwork or passports to cross the border.

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Others have been waiting so long in countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan for their applications to be processed by Ottawa that their visas have expired and they are being sent back to Afghanistan where they face Taliban reprisals.

With reports of the program wrapping up, Lauryn Oates, from Canadian Women 4 Women in Afghanistan, says an extension should happen.

“I think that we shouldn’t give up,” she told Global News, noting she has 17 staff members still in Afghanistan who have heard nothing from the government.

“The reality is we still have allies on the ground who are in danger,” she said.

“To completely close the program, to stop it completely when the need is still there, just doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t actually honour the commitment that we made,” Oates added.

In July 2021, the federal government unveiled a new, expedited “path to protection” for Afghans who supported Canadian troops as interpreters, cultural advisers or support staff, as well as their families.

In November 2021, Ottawa opened up the pathway to permanent residency for extended family members of Afghan interpreters.

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But the plan to resettle Afghan interpreters and their families has been plagued with problems, delays and controversy.

Global News reported last month that 2,900 applications from Afghans vetted by the Department of National Defence (DND) remained unaccounted for after senior DND officials testified that only 900 of 3,800 vetted applications had been approved by the IRCC.

The NDP alleged those files were lost, but Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told a parliamentary committee on May 12 that he did not “have any reason to believe any files” were missing.

However, when asked by Global News, his office didn’t provide any information about where they might be.

Armstrong said Canada needs to do better and “fix what’s wrong. I wish we could turn this around quickly,” she said. “There are people in Afghanistan who helped us and we promised to help them and now we’re failing them.”

— With files The Canadian Press

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