Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a media statement at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. 

As Canada prioritizes expedited arrivals for Ukrainians, at-risk Afghans remain trapped abroad

Canada plans to accept unlimited numbers of Ukrainians fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion. Meanwhile, progress remains slow in the resettlement of 40,000 Afghans.

The World

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a media statement at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. 

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/Pool

Working for the Canadian mission in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan made for some “very risky days.” 

“Every single day, there were four, five interpreters [or] contractors [who] were killed in [the] Kandahar streets," said Aagha, who worked as a construction contractor for the Canadian mission in southern city of Kandahar in the mid-2000s.

He applied last summer for Canada’s special immigration program for former Afghan employees of the Canadian government. Because he’s still in Afghanistan, he asked The World to only use his nickname, due to safety concerns.

While Aagha waits for news from Canada about resettlement, the Canadian government recently announced a plan to welcome an unlimited number of Ukrainian citizens fleeing war in their country.

Canada’s special program for Ukrainians has renewed attention to the long waits for Afghans, like Aagha, who are awaiting resettlement — particularly those whose relationships with Canada have put them at risk.

Related: ‘We have the means to support them’: Canada prepares to welcome thousands of Ukrainian refugees

Canadian Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told a TV interviewer earlier this month that these programs were designed to prioritize the accelerated arrival of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the ongoing conflict. 

“In my view, we don’t have 12 to 14 weeks. We have to move as quickly as possible,” Sean Fraser said.

Last summer, Canada’s government committed to welcoming 40,000 Afghans, including former employees and humanitarian cases. As of this week, the government says it has resettled 9,560 people, including 5,235 under the program for Afghans who assisted the Canadian government. Those numbers include several thousand Afghans evacuated during the August 2021 airlift.

Related: Canada promised to resettle 40,000 Afghans. Many are still waiting for answers.

Aagha had decided to apply for relocation to Canada last summer as the Taliban surrounded Kandahar. 

By September, he had a case number from Canada’s immigration agency. He knew he would likely have to travel through a third country, so he waited in lines for days to apply for passports for his entire family. 

“I was nervous, because I had heard that there were [Taliban] intelligence people at the passport office ... so whoever [applies] for passports, the intelligence people are looking for people who want to go to the West.”

Aagha, an Afghan man who worked for the Canadian mission in Kandahar

“I was nervous, because I had heard that there were [Taliban] intelligence people at the passport office" he explained, "so whoever [applies] for passports, the intelligence people are looking for people who want to go to the West.”

There was nothing to do but wait for a response from Canada. Nearly a year later — he’s still waiting.

Related: Canada tries to boost immigration by fast-tracking applications

Maureen Silcoff, an immigration attorney and past president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said many people are in a similar situation. 

Silcoff has been assisting a former security guard at the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan who is stalled in the same process.

“There's some lag [in Afghanistan] for thousands of people,” she said.

Related: 6 months after evacuation, thousands of Afghan families are waiting to reunite

A Canadian immigration ministry spokesperson said that because Canada “has no military or diplomatic presence” in Afghanistan, the agency faces “challenges in how we collect and verify the information of applicants and limits [to] our ability to complete processing and issue visas for clients in Afghanistan.”

Retired Major-General David Fraser, who led the Canadian mission in Kandahar, said he and former military colleagues are concerned by the sluggish pace of the Afghan evacuations.

Related: Canada faces criticism for its slow evacuation of Afghans who helped the government

“These people that we served shoulder-to-shoulder with, who we could not have done anything without; they were absolutely key enablers to the mission. The nation that paid them, and has opened the doors for them, has put so much bureaucracy in front of them, they’re not getting here.”

Retired Major-General David Fraser

“These people that we served shoulder-to-shoulder with, who we could not have done anything without; they were absolutely key enablers to the mission. The nation that paid them, and has opened the doors for them, has put so much bureaucracy in front of them, they’re not getting here.”

Gen. David Fraser and immigration attorneys insist Canada has the ability to change requirements and issue other travel documents that could accelerate Afghan departures. 

“It's not like there's no alternative to the way things are done,” Silcoff said. “If there's a will, there's a way."

Related: ‘We have no future’: Afghan women protest Taliban restrictions

Currently, Afghans are required to enter neighboring countries to complete a biometrics process, including fingerprints and photos for identity verification. While Canada has waived its passport requirement for Afghans in the resettlement process, countries like Pakistan currently require passports for entry.

Brian Macdonald, with the nongovernmental organization Aman Lara, is working to help evacuate about 10,000 Afghans, mostly former Canadian employees and their family members. He said that if Canada can create a way for people to submit biometrics from Afghanistan, “Then I think we could move thousands of people in the short-term and potentially our whole list.”

Meanwhile, there have been reports of people killed while waiting to come to Canada, including a 10-year-old girl shot by the Taliban in December 2021. 

Others have been waiting in third countries on temporary visas that have, in some cases, expired. A number of Canada-bound Afghans evacuated to Ukraine last August were still waiting for Canada to process their paperwork when Russia invaded on Feb. 24. 

“We just are not capable of moving quickly. And we've seen that again, and again."

Scott Gilmore, former diplomat from Canada

“We just are not capable of moving quickly. And we've seen that again, and again,” said former Canadian diplomat Scott Gilmore, who has been working with volunteers to assist Afghans trying to reach Canada. 

He said the government bureaucracy in Ottawa tends to respond poorly in crisis situations. “An exception to that, actually, I would argue, is recently with the Ukraine crisis; it's impressive how that's changed, and a bit damning, too.”

The immigration ministry has stated that plans to receive unlimited numbers of displaced Ukrainians won’t impact the processing of Afghans, in part because Ukrainians will mostly be processed initially as temporary residents, rather than refugees. 

“So they can come [speedily] to Canada, get their ability to work, come to safety, and then decide what they want to do, or perhaps we're going to open up permanent residence pathways for them," British Columbia-based immigration lawyer Will Tao said.

"And that's very, very different than the way that the situation in Afghanistan has played out.”

Related: ‘It’s the American spirit’: These Connecticut landlords are stepping up to help Afghan refugees arriving in the US

Government officials have stressed that they expect many Ukrainians will eventually want to return to Ukraine, while Afghans will likely remain in Canada permanently, and so would require additional support.

However, Tao thinks that despite differences between the two conflicts, Canada’s rapid embrace of Ukrainians will create pressure on the government to be more flexible in response to future humanitarian crises — and perhaps expand options for Afghans still stranded abroad.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?