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Canada’s Broken Promise: Afghanistan Evacuation One Year Later

On August 14, one year after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Ministers Mélanie Joly, Sean Fraser, Harjit S. Sajjan, and Anita Anand issued a statement regarding the end of Canadian involvement in Afghanistan. Their statement reiterated commitments to support the Afghan people, and also celebrated last year’s evacuation of “Canadians, permanent residents, and vulnerable Afghans, including those who supported Canada’s work.” The statement comes as thousands of Afghans employed by the Canadian government have been left behind and remain in life-threatening danger.

During Canada’s thirteen-year presence in Afghanistan, which ended in 2014, the Global Affairs and National Defense departments employed locals in many capacities, including as interpreters, intelligence-gatherers, chefs, drivers, and guides. When the Taliban overtook the national government in the summer of 2021, Canadian forces returned to airlift some 3,700 people. But not everyone was evacuated, and an unknown number were left completely vulnerable and unprotected. Despite assurances otherwise, the Taliban has reportedly been seizing property and tracking down former employees of international organizations. Those left behind in Afghanistan have reported seeing their neighbourhoods and offices searched by the Taliban. A former advisor to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) stated that a colleague was beheaded for working for the Canadian military. Others have simply gone missing.

The Canadian government initially announced plans to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees through three special immigration programs with no end date to reach that goal. Applying for resettlement through these programs has proven an excruciating process for many. The eligibility criteria is unclear, and citizens must apply for a passport through the Taliban. Even with all the relevant paperwork, the time it takes to hear back from appeals to the Canadian government is unpredictable. Afghan families who have fled to neighbouring countries with hopes of seeking asylum in Canada fear running out of funds before their applications are processed. Some applications are lost or receive no response at all; four former language and cultural advisers filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission after Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada delayed their applications, but their meeting was canceled at the last minute with no settlement reached. 

On the anniversary of the allied retreat from Kabul, the NDP released a report that uncovered further failures of the special resettlement programs. They found that of those who assisted Canadian missions, “at least 2,900 applications referred by the Department of National Defence are lost between departments.” Through pure bureaucratic negligence, Global Affairs and National Defense reveal their callous and irresponsible stance on duty of care to their former employees and their families.

In July, CBC reported that the government was planning to quietly end their special immigration programs after only one year with no plans of reinstatement. To date, less than half of the Afghan refugees Canada has committed to resettle have arrived in the country. Facing the end of government support, one former employee was told to move into a shelter in Toronto. 

Afghan immigrants who have been resettled for years report the strain that comes with trying to reunite with family members through Canada’s slow immigration process. Stories of families stuck abroad in a bureaucratic web and children with no clear path of being reunited with their parents illustrate the mental toll the system takes on applicants. 

Global Affairs and National Defense have also been accused of devaluing foreign employees elsewhere. In Ukraine, local diplomatic staff were allegedly not informed that they were high risk targets given the Russian invasion, and were not moved along with other Canadian diplomats. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly denied the allegations and announced a “Future of Diplomacy” review process to address the inconsistent application of safety measures for locally engaged staff in areas in crisis. 

Canada’s response to the war in Ukraine has also revealed inequities between the special measures afforded to Ukrainian refugees and refugees in other regions. Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told CBC that people are asking “why [accept] Ukrainians, but not people from Ethiopia, or from Afghanistan, or many other situations in crisis that people are fleeing?” The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, which offers short-term visas to fleeing Ukrainians, demonstrates the double-standard by which refugees are treated. Four months after the Russian invasion, 136,877 Temporary Resident Visas (TRVs) had been approved for Ukrainian refugees. In the last year, however, only 17,300 Afghan refugees have been resettled – less than half the government’s stated goal. Instead of taking into consideration the special situation in Afghanistan and prioritizing family reunification, the IRCC have denied the applications of Afghan refugees for the same reason as applicants who are not in immediate danger: fear that they will not leave when their visas expire. Without an objective refugee acceptance criteria, the government seems to rely on “media coverage and political connections” when deciding who is prioritized. 

Over the summer, a number of resettled Afghans organized protests in Canada, including a hunger strike, to call attention to the government’s failure to prioritize Afghan family reunification. Supporting such efforts can be the first step to helping evacuate Afghans in danger and holding the Canadian government accountable. You can also help with a Resettlement Assistance Program in your area to help refugees find housing, get involved in their community, and find community programs for newcomers, and call on the Canadian government to extend the special programs and create a deadline to reach their goal of resettled Afghans. Organizations like Aman Lara and the Afghan Women’s Organization focus on evacuation and resettlement, and organizations like Canadian Women 4 Women in Afghanistan and Learn Afghanistan focus on helping those in the country.