Since August, Mahdie Yari has been urgently searching for a way for her fiancé, Najeeb, to join her in Ottawa, Ontario.
Najeeb worked at a women’s rights nonprofit in Afghanistan with his sister. Yari said the siblings both received death threats in the mail as the Taliban retook control of the country this summer. They also belong to the Hazara ethnic minority, which has been targeted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Najeeb's last name is being withheld due to security concerns.
Najeeb made a first attempt to leave the country with other family members days after the Taliban reached Kabul. He sent Yari a video of crowds of Afghans waiting with their luggage near the border with Pakistan. Some had already been turned away.
“He didn't have luck. ... They had to return back home.”
“He didn't have luck,” Yari said. “They had to return back home.”
In August, Canada announced several special programs — including expedited family sponsorships — to resettle at least 20,000 Afghans who had aided the Canadian government and others at risk under the Taliban, including religious minorities, journalists and female leaders. Later, they doubled that number.
But months later, a series of challenges and delays have stalled the process for many anxious Afghans waiting for resettlement or reunification.
Yari and Najeeb have been living with that uncertainty.
For weeks, she used WhatsApp to remain in almost constant contact with him in Afghanistan.
Just over a week ago, Najeeb and his sister decided to make the long drive to the border and attempt to cross into Pakistan again.
Yari lost reception with them for a day or two as they passed through a mountainous region. When she next reached him, the siblings had made it across to Pakistan.
However, their challenges are not over.
Yari wants to eventually fly to Pakistan, to marry Najeeb and then try to sponsor him as family. She also hopes Najeeb’s sister will be eligible for resettlement under Canada’s private sponsorship program for refugees.
Meanwhile, living conditions for displaced Afghans in Pakistan are precarious. Najeeb told Yari that he worries about what he will do if his visa runs out before his sponsorship process is completed. The usual process can easily take years, if not expedited.
Warda Shazadi Meighen, an immigration attorney in Toronto, said the Canadian government’s pledges this summer were followed by disappointment.
“The way that we've implemented it creates a lot of red tape,” she said.
Meighen is mostly working on cases for Afghans affiliated with Canadian-funded projects; Afghans with family members in Canada; and a group of female Afghan judges in hiding not only from the Taliban but also from former prisoners they sentenced who were released by the Taliban.
The judges were very hopeful, Meighen said, to hear that Canada would prioritize female leaders for resettlement. But months later, time is running out for them.
Their cases have gotten stuck in a huge backlog of requests to Canada’s immigration agency, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
“We're just not getting responses. And I don't think we can get responses because the staffing is just not there,” she said.
“Our top priority is getting people safely out of Afghanistan,” IRCC spokesperson Jelena Jenko wrote in an email, noting that the agency has sent additional staff to assist at key embassies and consulates.
A few years ago, Canada managed to resettle tens of thousands of displaced Syrians within months, in part by redeploying staff to process people overseas and by waiving some paperwork requirements.
Wendy Cukier helped organize groups to sponsor Syrian refugees under Canada’s private sponsorship program. Earlier this year, she helped form an organization called Lifeline Afghanistan but said the government hasn’t shared enough information about the timeline and requirements to begin mobilizing volunteer sponsors to step up.
“As it stands now, there is no process really, to accelerate private sponsorship of Afghan refugees. So there's not much point in signing up sponsors because we don't have access to refugees who can be sponsored in any significant numbers."
“As it stands now, there is no process really, to accelerate private sponsorship of Afghan refugees. So, there's not much point in signing up sponsors because we don't have access to refugees who can be sponsored in any significant numbers,” she explained.
The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers has urged the government to waive the requirement that privately sponsored refugees must first get processed through the UN refugee agency, UNHCR — a major barrier to rapidly processing large numbers of Afghans.
IRCC spokesperson Jenko said Canada expects to begin receiving referrals from UNHCR in early 2022 and has also agreed to accept referrals from two other organizations focused on human rights advocates.
“The most significant hurdle in getting people out of Afghanistan remains the lack of safe, secure and reliable routes out of the country, which is under the control of the Taliban."
“The most significant hurdle in getting people out of Afghanistan remains the lack of safe, secure and reliable routes out of the country, which is under the control of the Taliban. It is the absence of stable conditions and the ever-changing circumstances around what exit documentation is required at check-points and international crossings into third countries which makes it exceedingly difficult to get Afghan refugees safely out,” Jenko wrote.
Fen Hampson, president of the World Refugee & Migration Council, said other major policy decisions that could have expedited evacuations and resettlement were clearly delayed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to dissolve Parliament and hold a snap parliamentary election — announced the same day Taliban forces entered Kabul.
“That's what ministers are for. They're there to kind of cut the Gordian knots and say, 'give these people a goddamn visa, so we can get them out of the country.' Because that’s been the sticking point.”
“That's what ministers are for. They're there to kind of cut the Gordian knots and say, give these people a [...] visa, so we can get them out of the country,” Hampson said, “Because that’s been the sticking point.”
He pointed to countries like Ireland that he says were able to issue visas much more quickly than Canada, and compared Canada’s approach to processing applicants to a hospital asking patients to wait for weeks outside an emergency room.
Canada’s new immigration minister, Sean Fraser, was not named until the end of October.
“We continue to work tirelessly to speed up the process and help as many Afghan refugees as possible,” wrote Jenko, the IRCC spokesperson.
To date, Canada has admitted 3,325 people under the program for Afghans who assisted the Canadian government, including family members. Many of those left the country on evacuation flights in August. Jenko said that the number of Afghans admitted under humanitarian measures was not readily available but that the government anticipates Afghans will continue to arrive through the end of 2023.
At one point earlier this year, Ali Mirzad, who works for the Canadian Hazara Humanitarian Services, found his own phone number had started circulating among Afghans looking for help leaving the country. He received hundreds of calls.
“I was getting voicemails at 3 in the morning, 2 in the morning here, saying, you know, 'I need help. I need to be saved. I saw your name. Can you help?’” said Mirzad, who’s been advocating for members of the Hazara minority to be included as a priority category for resettlement. He expressed frustration over delays he said IRCC officials have attributed to delaying policy decisions at the top of the agency.
"A part of me says ... I want to understand and sympathize with them, but a part of me also can't,” he said. “Because we're in direct contact with so many people that are in need of help.” People’s lives are at stake, he said.
His group is still helping people reach Pakistan, but they've increasingly shifted their focus on raising money to feed for those already there — anticipating they could need support for a long time.