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Afghan immigration routes nearly full, thousands to be left behind: MPs, NGOs

OTTAWA — Members of Parliament and charitable groups are warning that two immigration programs for Afghans who helped Canadian Forces and those at special risk from the Taliban are almost full and thousands living in peril could be left behind.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 in Ottawa. MPs and NGOs are warning that spots on government programs set up to bring Afghans who helped Canadian Forces to Canada — as well as those at special risk from the Taliban — are almost full, and thousands living in peril could be left behind. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Members of Parliament and charitable groups are warning that two immigration programs for Afghans who helped Canadian Forces and those at special risk from the Taliban are almost full and thousands living in peril could be left behind. 

Canada has created a special program for Afghans who assisted Canadians, including interpreters for the military and their families. It also established a humanitarian program for vulnerable Afghans, including LGBTQ people and human-rights defenders. 

The Canadian government has promised to bring 40,000 Afghans to Canada through these two programs and other routes, including private sponsorship. 

The Immigration Department confirmed that of 18,000 spots in the program for Afghans who helped Canada, it has received almost 15,000 applications as well as referrals for the remaining 3,000 spaces.

Aidan Strickland, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said the government is "not discontinuing the special immigration measures for Afghan refugees."

But she said the Immigration Department has "received referrals from the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada for the remaining spaces in the special immigration program."

Of the 14,935 applications received so far for the program, 10,670 have been approved, according to figures from the Immigration Department. 

Almost 7,000 Afghans have so far arrived in Canada via this program. 

NDP MP Jenny Kwan said she had also been told by Afghans applying to join the separate humanitarian program that there are no more spots left.

"What I am hearing on the ground is that the spots available are getting filled up or at least spoken for," said Kwan, a member of Parliament's special committee on Afghanistan. "So many will be left behind."

Over 8,700 Afghans have arrived in Canada under the humanitarian program. 

The program relies on referrals, including by the UN Refugee Agency and human-rights organizations based in Europe.

Kwan said she had been told that these referral spots are also filling up. 

Non-governmental organizations and opposition MPs are calling on ministers to extend the programs, warning that many vulnerable Afghans including interpreters who helped Canadian Forces face reprisals from the Taliban. 

A group of NGOs who worked in Afghanistan met with officials from the Immigration Department last month and were told the spots were filling up fast. 

They and MPs warn once the spots on the programs have been filled, Afghans who helped Canadians will be stranded and at the mercy of the Taliban. 

Afghans living in Canada told Parliament's special Afghanistan committee that the Taliban is hunting down and persecuting Afghans who helped Canadian Forces. Some Afghans are burning documents showing their links to Canada and fleeing from house to house. 

Women in Afghanistan also face increasing restrictions, including on the right to work and travel alone. The Taliban has decreed that women in public outside their homes must cover their face, including newsreaders on TV.

Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said the situation is getting "worse and worse on so many levels" with many women who support their families losing their jobs. 

She called on the government to extend the program designed to evacuate Afghans who helped Canadians, warning that once the spots are filled, many with no way out could lose hope.

"We think that the 18,000 doesn't meet the obligation and that the program should be extended. That means adding more spots," she said. 

Strickland said the government "has received hundreds of thousands of communications from those expressing interest in coming to Canada since the fall of Kabul."

"Regrettably, this is a far larger number than we can bring to Canada," she said. 

"The unfortunate reality is that not everyone who expressed interest in coming to Canada will be eligible under the special programs for Afghanistan," she added. 

"Our commitment of bringing at least 40,000 vulnerable Afghans to Canada has not wavered and it remains one of the largest programs around the world."

She said if Afghans not included in the 40,000 figure are still interested in immigrating, "we encourage them to apply through our other immigration streams offered by the government of Canada."

The Conservatives asked for the Afghan programs to be extended. 

Jasraj Singh Hallan, Conservative immigration critic, said his office is still receiving messages from Afghans who worked for the Canadian Armed Forces who have yet to hear back from the Immigration Department about applications submitted straight after the Taliban took control. 

"As the one-year anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan approaches, and the temporary programs put in place are set to expire, less than 7,000 Afghans who assisted the government of Canada have actually arrived in Canada," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press