‘A dysfunctional process’: Thousands of Canada’s allies and their families are still stranded in Afghanistan

‘This is how they work in a situation of life and death. It just seems like such a dysfunctional process’

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Abdul Ahmadullah used to think that it was only the Taliban he should fear while waiting to flee Afghanistan to get a new life in Canada.

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Then came the letters.

Posted a week ago in hotels in Kabul that house former employees of foreign militaries and governments, they warned that now the local branch of the ISIS terrorist group was also on its way after them.

“The situation in Kabul for us interpreters is very dangerous,” said Ahmadullah, who was employed by the Canadian Army in Kandahar from 2007 to 2011.

The situation in Kabul for us interpreters is very dangerous

He and his family are not alone. They are among thousands of former employees of Canada’s armed forces, government and federally funded NGOs and their relatives, who face serious risk because of this work but were stranded in Afghanistan after a chaotic airlift ended in August.

The government set up a special immigration program in June to speed up the admission of such Afghans with “lasting relations” with Canada. Relatively few caught up with the C-17 Globemaster planes that Canadian forces flew out of Kabul this summer when the Taliban took control of the country.

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Some have managed to escape to Canada since then by traveling overland first to Pakistan.

But more than two months later, the vast majority continue to wait in limbo, many hunkered down in secure houses funded by private Canadian groups that are quickly running out of money.

Aman Lara, one of several veterans and other organizations helping them, offers accommodation in Kabul to hundreds of Afghans, most of whom fled from Kandahar, the site of Canada’s 2006-2011 combat mission. But it says it can not afford to drive the safe houses past November 5th.

About 200 of the residents of the houses on Monday sent an e-mail to various officials, begging for a quicker exit.

“We are all in a serious situation and fear for our lives every single day,” they said.

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Moving rules from Pakistan – a longtime ally with the Taliban – on what documentation is needed to cross the border into Afghanistan explains some of the delays.

But many applicants are still waiting for final approval from Canada. And some have not yet received a response from Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), their aides say.

“I’m frustrated on their behalf,” BC’s Lauryn Oates said of her staff at a women’s rights NGO in Afghanistan. “But it also makes me worried about my government. This is how they work in a situation of life and death. It just seems like a dysfunctional process. ”

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The Canadian embassy actually warned Canadian women for women in Afghanistan about the special immigration program before it was announced, and all 27 local staff applied, the chief executive said.

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No one has yet been harmed by the Taliban, but as a group of women linked to a NATO country, their situation remains precarious. “People are pretty panicky,” Oates said.

Yet the federally funded group has only seen two families come to Canada – one in the airlift and one since it ended – while three have been awarded “G-numbers” by the IRCC, which is considered a de-facto acceptance of their application. The other 22 have actually had no response, Oates said.

Ottawa says it removed 3,700 people during the last evacuation operation from Kabul in August. But many of them were Canadian nationals, unlike Afghan former employees and their families under the special program.

In all, since the program began, the IRCC has approved 9,500 former workers and their relatives to come to Canada, said Alex Cohen, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

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How many of them have reached this point is another question.

Cohen said 1,000 “refugees” have been brought to Canada since the air evacuation ended. Most were former employees of the special program, but some arrived under a separate Canadian initiative for “vulnerable” Afghans with no special affiliation with this country.

Cohen said the government has added staff to key missions abroad to try to speed up the process, has reduced some bureaucracy and is working closely with neighboring countries. It will consider providing financial support to the secure houses, the minister’s spokesman said.

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But he said the demands of these neighboring countries could “shift” and that “complex files often take longer to process.”

“We remain in constant contact with applicants who remain in Afghanistan,” Cohen said. “We will exhaust all possible means of getting Afghan refugees to safety in Canada.”

With the August airlift over and the Taliban firmly in control, some of the former staff have reached Pakistan – usually via the Torkam border crossing near the legendary Khyber Pass. They underwent biometric and medical screening there before being flown to Canada.

But the numbers that have actually come out have been relatively small.

The Veterans Transition Network has managed to relocate about 260 former employees and family members to Canada since the airlift ended, spokesman Tim Laidler said. It further leaves about 2,000 of the organization’s accusations still in Afghanistan.

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Laidler said VTN is grateful that the federal government is now working with the group, and welcomed a recent donation of $ 250,000 from Scotiabank.

But with the huge cost of helping fund Aman Lara-safe houses, “we are desperately lacking – we thought we would be finished in a month after the airlift,” Laidler said. “Because of the many barriers in Canada and abroad, we are not getting enough people out who deserve to be in Canada.”

Taliban forces are on duty one day after the withdrawal of US troops from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on 31 August 2021.
Taliban forces are on duty one day after the withdrawal of US troops from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on 31 August 2021. Photo by Reuters / Stringer

There was a modest wave of evacuations to Pakistan in the past, but “the flow of people out of Afghanistan has almost dried up,” said Wendy Long of the Afghan Canadian Interpreters group.

In addition to the thousands who have given the green light of Ottawa but lack the necessary paperwork to get out, many are still waiting for the first approval from the IRCC, said Robin Rickards, a military veteran who has been deeply involved in the effort.

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“Everything has literally stalled in the last six weeks,” he said. “In every way, it’s a massive failure.”

Oates said IRCC officials have told her they have simply been overwhelmed by the number of applications under the program.

And some desperate Afghans are trying to take advantage of it, she acknowledged. Her staff has met people without a Canadian connection who had remembered the widespread email address the IRCC issued for applications. But she argued that groups like hers have provided ample evidence to show who a real employee is, so the investigation should not be difficult.

Ahmadullah fled from Kandahar to a safe house in Kabul in July, applying as soon as he could for the federal program. His family now has his crucial G-number, but they are still waiting for the papers – in digital form – that will allow them to cross into Pakistan.

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Yet, with the end in sight, he is only Canada grateful.

“You can not blame the Canadian government (for delays) because things are happening. This is Afghanistan.”

For those who have actually achieved this, there is jubilation.

A former interpreter at the Canadian-run combat hospital at Kandahar Airfield – known as Tony by his former colleagues – said he was sure he would be killed when the airlift ended and he was still in Kabul.

But last month, he, his wife and six children were notified that they were approved to cross into Pakistan. A van organized by a Canadian NGO drove them to the border with three nerve-wracking stops at Taliban checkpoints along the way. They managed it and the UN International Organization for Migration drove them to Islamabad.

Three weeks later, the family flew to Toronto via the UK

“I feel like I’m in another world,” Tony said last week while in quarantine at an airport hotel. He asked that his real name be withheld to protect parents who are still in Afghanistan.

“I’m not stressed, I’m not worried about the future, about what to do,” he said. “I’m so happy. Thank you so much Canada, thank you so much.”

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