August 2021: Afghanistan falls back to the Taliban. Canada then undertakes to welcome 40,000 Afghan refugees on its soil. But a year later, Ottawa hasn't reached half of that goal.
Afghan refugees arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport in August 2021.
It has now been almost eight months since Ehsanullah Sahil settled down in Niagara Falls, Ontario. This former Afghan interpreter, who worked for the Canadian military, had to flee his country and wait eight years before being able to settle in Canada.
We met him in last December, a few days after his arrival. Today, the young man flourishes: he works in a department store, is about to obtain his driver's license, makes friends. Everything is perfect. I try to continue on this path, to establish myself, he confides.
But he also thinks constantly of his relatives who remained in Afghanistan under the thumb of the Taliban.
Ehsanullah Sahil arrived in Ontario in December 2021, thanks to the sponsorship of a group of Canadians.
Two of my sisters are high school graduates, they should go to university, but it's not possible. There is no possibility for them, they can only stay at home doing nothing, he says.
“The situation is really terrible. It is driving me crazy. »
— Ehsanullah Sahil
Ehsanullah Sahil also thinks of his former fellow performers. Many are still trying to leave Afghanistan, and are waiting for news from Canada, which has promised to help them.
Some people ask me what to do, and I tell them: keep contacting [the government], sending emails! It's the only way.
Since August 2021, at last count, 17,050 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada through various programs, out of the 40,000 that the federal government is committed to receiving.
Ottawa last year created the Special Immigration Measures (SIM) for those who have helped the Canadian government and their families . So far, more than 15,000 applications have been received for this program, and 7,250 people have arrived in the country.
The MSI program is intended for former interpreters of the Armed Forces and local employees of the Canadian Embassy, among others.
< p class="e-p">I think we are all in shock today to still be at this point, says retired Major-General David Fraser. He is part of a group of former commanders who, in July 2021, as the Taliban advanced from town to town, wrote a letter to the Canadian government to express the urgency for action.
David Fraser has since been active in a network of NGOs such as Aman Lara and Journalists for Human Rights, all of which work to evacuate threatened Afghans, and denounce the slowness of the system.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and Global Affairs Canada continue to use email and do not have very active means of reaching people who apply, to let them know what is going on. It's very frustrating.
Retired Major General David Fraser served in Afghanistan.
There is no sense of urgency, he asserts. It all depends a lot on what I would call Ottawa's schedule and pace, Monday through Friday. And as time passes, there is less and less desire or impetus to complete [this mission].
“It is a great disappointment when you know what these people are facing, the humanitarian crisis that continues and worsens every day, the famine that is unfolding before our eyes. »
— David Fraser, Retired Major-General
In a written statement, IRCC says Canada remains committed to its resettlement goal, one of the largest in the world. But the logistical challenges on the ground are great, Minister Sean Fraser recently recalled. We are dealing with territory that has been seized by the Taliban, a terrorist entity under Canadian law.
Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WA), laments a lack of consistency in the process.
We have a group of employees who have been trying to evacuate since last August. They all applied for the program around the same time, but only 5 of them were invited and 4 are now in Canada; 17 others have never heard from.
Lauryn Oates is the Executive Director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.< /p>
Most are still in Afghanistan and are in danger because of their affiliation with women's rights, girls' education programs funded by the Government of Canada. Others are in Pakistan and are also in danger: their visas will expire, it is difficult to pay the expenses, she describes.
But what worries even more NGOs is that the MSI program in particular is capped at 18,000 places and is coming to an end, which could close the door to other applicants.
All people who have served and faced risk while serving with Canada should have a chance to apply to come here, insists Wendy Long, founder and director of the Afghan-Canadian Interpreters group.
They and others, as well as the opposition parties in Ottawa, are therefore calling for an extension to this program.
“If you have the references and your service in Canada is confirmed, why have a limit? We had no limit with Ukrainians.
— Wendy Long, founder of the Afghan-Canadian Interpreters
IRCC says it will continue to issue Invitations to Apply.
There are also additional resettlement places remaining in the humanitarian stream which has been created to accommodate vulnerable Afghan refugees – including (but not limited to) women leaders, human rights defenders, persecuted and religious minorities, LGBTI people and journalists – as government-assisted and privately-sponsored refugees, writes a spokesperson.
Wendy Long also acknowledges that at the Beyond the cumbersomeness of the system, the greatest difficulty remains getting people out of Afghanistan with the cooperation of neighboring countries, which do not want Afghans in their country and which require passports and visas, which are very difficult to obtain.< /p>
Wendy Long is the founder of the Afghan-Canadian Interpreters association. She is also part of the group that sponsored Ehsanullah Sahil to bring him to Canada.
However, she points out that an opportunity has just opened up with Pakistan, which could move things forward. Authorities have agreed to relax their border measures for a period of a few weeks, allowing Afghans approved by Canada to travel to Pakistan to continue their application process there and leave quickly.
They gave a block of time to do this. It took a lot of negotiations to get this chance.
But after a year of asking for more resources, it's hard for these organizations and individuals involved not to also feel a certain bitterness. In Wendy Long's case, the fight to evacuate performers began years before the fall of Kabul.
It was a sadness to me that the government did not take the situation seriously enough and the fact that these people were at such high risk and that the Taliban were indeed going to take over Afghanistan. We saw the signs.
People could have come to Canada [long before] in a regular and more organized way, she argues.
Adeena Niazi receives heartbreaking calls from women trying to leave Afghanistan. She is the director of Afghan Women's Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services, which works with refugees in the Toronto area.
Adeena Niazi is the director and founder of AWO.
I've spent so many nights on the phone with these women, who see they're at risk. They are asking for support from Canada, for help to get out of Afghanistan. And it is very painful, because we are [powerless]. It's very sad. But you have to listen to their stories.
She fears that little by little, the fate of the Afghans will be relegated to the background. Especially when the crisis in Ukraine started, people's attention shifted. And of course the Ukrainians deserve this attention and my heart goes out to them. I am old enough to remember 40 years ago the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But we must not forget the Afghans.
All agree, however: no question of giving up. We are not going to let these men and women down until they are out of the country, assures David Fraser. We are committed to working 24/7 with them. And to work as collaborative and productive teammates with the Government of Canada.
“This is not just an act of charity. It's more like a debt.
— Lauryn Oates, Executive Director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan
These people seeking to come are hard workers, notes Ehsanullah Sahil in turn. No matter what job you give them, they say OK, no problem. Because we have been through a lot and here is the land of possibilities.