New Delhi, India, Aug 24 2021: Afghan women holding placards and shouting slogans, Afghans living in India gathered at UNHCR to protest and demand refugee status.
New Delhi, India, Aug 24 2021: Afghan women holding placards and shouting slogans, Afghans living in India gathered at UNHCR to protest and demand refugee status. Credit: PradeepGaurs / Shutterstock

It’s been 47 years since Toronto Workshop Productions opened a Jack Winter play about the impossible barriers facing Chilean refugees trying to escape the Pinochet dictatorship and get to Canada. The play’s title, You Can’t Get There From Here, might well apply a half century later to the tens of thousands of Afghans hiding out from the Taliban, languishing in unsafe third countries, and wondering if they have been gaslit by a Canadian government that promised safety and asylum, but which only provides auto-generated emails acknowledging receipt of their increasingly desperate inquiries.

In 2015, when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on a platform to rapidly welcome thousands of Syrian refugees (contrasting itself with the mean-spirited Harper regime), they initiated a program to land 25,000 people in 100 days. Back then, it was sunny ways and the anti-Harper. But Trudeau’s 2021 election promise to offer asylum to 40,000 Afghans felt more like a rearguard motion to cover for Canada’s 12-year failure to provide safe haven for interpreters, translators, fixers, and others whose lives remain at risk because of their past association with the Canadian occupation.

In fact, 130 days after the first announced commitment to resettle Afghan refugees who had assisted Canada during the occupation, fewer than 10 per cent of them have arrived in Canada. There are two dozen people from the Canadian embassy’s law firm in Kabul who remain stranded there as well.

Many grass roots groups, sponsorship organizations, and lawyers daily receive new emails pleading for help. Most are from individuals who meet the qualifications for Canada’s program to assist women’s rights defenders, human rights organizers, persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and journalists. The plea  is always the same: must they die waiting even when they clearly meet the requirements?

Killed waiting for Canada’s help

Canada’s sick answer to that painful question, unfortunately, is yes. On the evening of December 10 – International Human Rights Day – a 10-year-old girl named Nazifa, whose family had been approved for resettlement to Canada, was shot dead in Kandahar. A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Minister Sean Fraser called this death “tragic and heartbreaking.” While Fraser himself added that the killing would “shock the conscience of every Canadian,” he both failed to take any responsibility for it, or to acknowledge that it was painfully predictable.

Kynan Walper, a spokesperson for a group of Canadian veterans and interpreters, Aman Lara (Pashto for “sheltered path”), told Global News:

“There was a 10-year-old girl who was shot … when she should have been on her way to Canada. This was avoidable and it was bound to happen, and it’s going to happen more. We need to do better, and I understand that everyone’s trying, but we need to do better, we need to pick this up…whether it be through flights, whether it be through ground movements, whether it be through co-operation with other countries, we need to continue this with a renewed urgency so this does not happen again.”

To make matters worse, Minister Fraser’s racist rants about the Taliban are not endearing Canadian officials to the new regime in Afghanistan. Tragically, the Taliban are the only game in town, but name-calling and insults will only harm those refugees trying to leave the country on their way to Canada. Fraser fulminated. “If [The Taliban] wanted to help us, which they don’t, I don’t think they’d be very good at it.”

While the Taliban’s practices and violence are certainly vile, they are hardly an unsophisticated, unorganized group who are incapable of negotiation and cutting agreements. They sat in lengthy negotiations with the Trump administration in Doha, and President Joe Biden repeatedly declared in an August 20, 2021 press conference that his administration was in constant contact with Taliban officials, and that they had struck agreements to allow evacuation flights. And just last weekend, the Taliban announced they would resume the issuance of travel documents. But Canada’s belligerent rhetoric is hardly opening a door to the kinds of agreements this country is capable of striking if there is the political will to do so. (Indeed, when two white male Canadian diplomats were held hostage by Al-Qaeda in 2009, Canada appeared to have no problems negotiating a $1.1 million ransom.)

Grassroots groups shut out

But what should really shock the conscience of Canadians is that Fraser’s own IRCC is not “very good at it” when it comes to answering the pleas of Afghan refugees. With all the experience of Canada’s remarkable network of grass roots groups, community organizations, sponsorship agreement holders, and refugee advocates, IRCC has played its cards close to its chest, shutting out many expert individuals and networks who could facilitate this process. IRCC also keeps repeating that the unavailability of flights out of Kabul and an alleged lack of capacity among “referral partners” are primary reasons for delay, but those excuses mask the reality that there is plenty of space to get this rescue operation expedited.

Indeed, on December 7, NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan called for emergency immigration measures in the House of Commons, pointing out:

“According to the government’s own website, ‘Canada and its allies have received assurances from the Taliban that Afghan citizens with travel authorization from other countries will be allowed to leave Afghanistan.’ Canada must not squander this small window of opportunity given the dire situation in Afghanistan. The NDP is therefore calling on the government to bring in an emergency immigration measure of utilizing temporary residence permits to help Afghans get to safety.”

The Rural Refugee Rights Network (the author coordinates the group), which has successfully reunited dozens of refugee families using such permits, has heard from scores of Afghans both within and outside of the country. They range from women’s rights activists to the long-persecuted members of the Hazara ethnic group and former non-governmental organization (NGO) workers. As a potential “referral partner,” the network has plenty of complete files with everything needed to expedite temporary resident permits.

But Ottawa is not returning phone calls or emails. For groups like the long-established Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, the experience is similar. Their executive director, Lauryn Oates, told the Globe and Mail:

“Even just communicate, send a reply that says: Look, we’re gonna do our best to give you an answer by the end of December, so people have something. It seems to be a failure of bureaucracy and an inability to adapt to an emergency … the needs of human beings who are real people with real families who just want to know what the hell is going to happen to them.”

“Why can’t you prioritize us?”

One of the families working with the Rural Refugee Rights Network submitted all required information to the Canadian government last August. Well-trained in finance and administration and a father of three young kids, “Hussain” worked for almost a decade with a variety of Canadian-funded organizations that provided mentoring and research to assist policewomen, War Child Canada’s Evaluation of Afghan Women’s Community Support Program, the Aga Khan Foundation, the United Nations Development Program, World University Service of Canada, and the Canadian International Development Agency.

When I spoke with Hussain last week, he expressed disappointment that his family remains stuck in a crowded Netherlands refugee camp as he continues to spend hours on the IRCC website and make phone calls to the Afghanistan hotline. He is equally distressed that he has not received any support from the NGOs for which he risked his life working for close to a decade, with one representative unhelpfully replying that Hussain should to try engage with the unresponsive IRCC.

Despite the barriers put up both by government and the NGO world, Hussain remains hopeful that, by sharing his story, families like his and many others in limbo will receive enough support from grass roots people across Canada that Ottawa will finally speed up what should be an easy process to finalize.

“I lost everything because of what happened, and now we are stuck here,” he told me. “I’m young, I can work, I won’t be dependent on anyone. The scope of my work experience is wide. Why can’t you prioritize us?”

Hussain has seen other families suddenly getting the word that they could get on a plane, but he has received no answer as to why his application, which meets all the requirements for quick entry to Canada, sits idle. He worries because his kids are losing weight –  there is no culturally appropriate food made available to them – and he knows of some refugees who have waited in the camps for as long as eight years to get housing in the Netherlands.

“Canada has everything they need to know all about us,” Hussain says.

“We have so much to contribute. We are in the Netherlands. There are not the security issues we saw at the Kabul airport that would prevent us from getting on a plane. We are fully vaxxed, we are ready to be relocated. What is holding things up?”

On top of the stress of limbo, Hussain and his family also have traumatic memories of the scramble to leave the country, which entailed a nail-biting, last-minute dash to the airport, tense negotiation while standing knee-deep in the sewage ditch surrounding the Kabul airport, and trying to calm his children by explaining that the roar of military jets and sounds of gun and mortar fire were wedding celebrations.

We never slept well

Like many in his shoes, Hussain was at constant risk from the Taliban, even during the Canadian and NATO occupation, for engaging in NGO work. Indeed, in 2017 he received a notorious Taliban “night letter” (a form of intimidation that threatens the recipient for working with “the crusaders”), which forced his family to relocate. “They told me they knew I was working with non-governmental organizations, that I was dealing with money,” he said, noting this left him open to threats of extortion and violence. As the Taliban entered Kabul, he destroyed the letter, knowing he was doomed if he were captured with it on his person. Even before the dramatic events of August 2021, living in the country was always fraught with tension. “Many people were targeted for killing, and we never slept well,” he recalled. “Every day I thought, this is our last day, and yes, the fear was always there.”

While Afghan families both inside and outside of Afghanistan express their frustration, there is a long line-up of professionals and volunteers alike on the other end of the equation wanting to facilitate the process but continuing to hit brick walls.

“I was looking forward to being part of various Afghanistan pro bono initiatives that dedicated volunteers have organized, in an effort to use my legal knowledge to help vulnerable populations seek refuge in our country,” explains immigration lawyer Sheela Gupta.

“Unfortunately, my skill set, along with those of other lawyers who are driven to help in whatever way they can, are not being used. My efforts mainly consist of responding to desperate pleas from Afghans, received on a daily basis. I have a boilerplate response which I use more often than I’d like, that explains their ineligibility for government programs and expresses the hope that additional resettlement programs may be introduced in the future.”

Even when her clients match the requirements for Canada’s Afghan refugee program, Gupta notes that “there are inconsistencies in how applications are accepted for processing. …I’ve lost hope on additional resettlement programs being introduced anytime soon, but I do hope that IRCC is instructed to process applications in queue more expeditiously, especially given that so many applicants are in hiding from the Taliban or are in other countries without legal status.”

Canada’s anti-migrant bias

Part of the problem is that Canada employs twice as many people on the enforcement end of immigration – working to deport the most vulnerable back to the countries they fled ­– than it does to facilitate their entry. Indeed, some 14,000 people work day and night at Canadian Border Services Agency to meet arbitrary deportation quotas, throw refugees into prison on the flimsiest of grounds (in 2019/20, over 8,800 refugees were detained without charge, including 136 children), and work overseas to prevent migrants from getting here in the first place. By contrast, IRCC has just over 7,000 workers, many of whom tend to play a role similar to CBSA, finding excuses to delay or reject applications in a work environment that its own employees say is rank with racism.

A 2020 report on IRCC’s work culture found that “significant proportions of racialized employees consider racism to be a problem within the department,” pointing to hurtful comments, “blatantly racist tropes,” and “racial biases in the application of IRCC’s programs, policies and client service that are believed to result from implicit biases among decision makers, as well as administrative practices that introduce biases or the potential for bias over time.” These focus groups also pointed to “a deep imbalance in racial representation in management that inherently militates against progress on dealing with racism in the department.”

That racism is often exhibited in the very overseas visa posts that are apparently tasked with the Afghan refugee crisis. As one participant noted in the focus group, they “decided not to accept any postings to countries in the region their ancestors came from, as the emotional toll of being exposed repeatedly to racist comments against people of their background had become too heavy.”

Critically for Afghan applicants suffering the endless wait under trying conditions, the report also found “some of the overt and subtle racism [IRCC employees] have witnessed by both employees and decision makers can and probably must impact case processing. Some point to differences in refusal rates by country as an indicator that some form of bias must be at play.”

In addition, the report found that established practices meant to reflect departmental policies “have taken on discriminatory undertones for the sake of expediency or performance,” pointing to discriminatory rules for processing immigration applications from some countries or regions that are different than for others (e.g., demanding additional financial document requirements for applications from Nigeria). They also expressed concern that increased automation of processing “will embed racially discriminatory practices in a way that will be harder to see over time.”

No room at the inn

The self-advocacy group Voices 4 Families has recently pointed to examples in rejections for spousal sponsorships as rooted in that very racism, noting that, among other factors, explanations for turning down a spouse can include a woman who is older than her husband, the woman is a divorcee, a woman who is not white is married to a white man, the wedding size was small, the couple have mixed religious backgrounds, and because the couple have different levels of education.

When Trudeau first came to power, his government blamed everything wrong with the immigration system on Harper. That excuse, while certainly justified, could only last so long (notably, much of the damage was also done during the Chretien/Martin years too). Then along came Covid, a catch-all excuse to further rationalize unacceptable processing delays, even though the processing of immigration files can be done online from any location on the planet. Now, families who have been waiting years for reunification are told the Afghan refugee crisis has taken up all the priority staff time. But with such poor numbers of resettled Afghan refugees, many wonder if that too is just another excuse to cover an institutional failure.

IRCC Minister Fraser, meanwhile, is playing by the classic Trudeau script, acknowledging the pain he feels while refusing to come up with immediate, bold, and perfectly realizable solutions. When asked by the Globe and Mail if he appreciates that lives are on the line, Fraser replied:

“That’s the kind of thing that you think about when you go to bed at night and you ask yourself, ‘Am I bringing the level of dedication and talent to this job that the magnitude of the task demands?’ And I hope to God I do.”

While heavenly judgment has yet to be rendered for Fraser, the verdict has long been posted in every auto-generated letter from Canadian immigration authorities to fearful Afghans wondering whether that invitation to come to Canada was all just a cruel joke. In the spirit of the season, it clearly tells them: No room at the inn.


Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. His column “Taking Liberties” examines connections...