October 25, 2021: Wendy Cukier didn’t expect to end up with 2,000 shoes in her living room. When she heard that two-thirds of Afghans arriving at the Toronto airport had only sandals on their feet, she put out a call for donations through Lifeline Afghanistan, an organization she co-founded that is helping to resettle refugees. Within days she had hundreds, then thousands of shoes.
Canadians across the country want to help. They’ve been finding supplies for Afghans who arrived with next to nothing having left abruptly on the August airlifts. But two months after Kabul fell to the Taliban, they’re still waiting for the government to clarify how its resettlement program will be rolled out.
“The Canadian public is incredibly supportive of Canada’s engagement in global refugee issues, but that confidence can’t be taken for granted,” said James Milner, an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and an expert on refugees.
During the campaign, the Liberal Party promised to spend $350 million to resettle Afghan refugees by 2023. The week after they won the September election, the Liberals doubled the commitment from 20,000 to 40,000 refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to clarify how many Afghans will receive government assistance and how many will be supported privately through the sponsorship program, which allows Canadians to fundraise and file paperwork on behalf of specific refugees.
An estimated 3,750 Afghans are on their way to beginning life in Canada through a special immigration program, according to Alexander Cohen, press secretary at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The program was set up this summer to assist interpreters who worked with the Canadian armed forces and Afghan employees of the Canadian embassy. Individuals who qualify, and their families, have been able to apply directly for it.
Jawad is among those who have already arrived. (Last names of refugees have been withheld for their privacy and security.) He worked for the Canadian embassy in Kabul for eleven years. He landed in Canada at the end of August with his wife and their three children via Kuwait and Germany. “We couldn’t sleep for 32 hours in a row,” he said, remembering the journey. “We were still feeling lucky.”
Another 9,400 have been approved under these special immigration measures but have yet to enter Canada. Some are still in Afghanistan, others have fled elsewhere. The government continues to process applications, and the total number who qualify may rise.
The remainder of the 40,000 Afghans will be resettled via a humanitarian program. The government could not confirm the number of refugees who have arrived through it so far. Individuals and families cannot apply directly but must be referred, unlike the special immigration program.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has praised Canada’s response. But many of the details still need to be spelled out. Pledges without a clear process for resettlement are confusing to both Afghans and those who want to help.
Community organizations who work with refugees are overwhelmed with messages from Afghans asking, “What can I do to get out?” said Kelly Ernst of the Centre for Newcomers in Calgary. People still inside and outside Afghanistan have been frantically trying to secure one of the 40,000 spots.
The government announced at the end of August that 5,000 of those spaces will go to refugees who were airlifted by the United States. Their onward journey to Canada, where they will be welcomed in Calgary, has been delayed due to a measles outbreak, said Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. They are expected to arrive before the end of March next year, he said.
Beyond these 5,000 Afghans and those already in Canada, bringing tens of thousands more refugees to Canada will not be easy. The government needs to resolve several issues in the months ahead.
The situation within Afghanistan and at its borders is volatile. Wali, who worked as an interpreter for the Canadian armed forces and is now in Calgary with his family, stressed that it’s complicated and dangerous now for anyone to flee.
Even if Afghans can leave, the dynamics in neighbouring countries are complex. Before the Taliban takeover, Pakistan was already hosting at least 1.4 million Afghans, points out Milner. The Canadian government faces significant operational challenges resettling Afghans from there, he said.
From Iran, where Canada doesn’t have an embassy, resettlement will also be tough, notes Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. In recent years, Canadians trying to sponsor Afghan refugees in Iran have experienced long delays. “They go to Iran and they’re stuck,” she said.
Even if these bureaucratic hiccups are resolved, determining who, among millions of Afghan refugees should be prioritized for resettlement, is vexed. The government has identified target groups, among them: women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, individuals who identify as LGBTI, and people with ties to Canada.
In setting priorities, “it’s really important that Afghans themselves are part of that conversation,” said Milner.
Afghans who are already here know how difficult it is for their friends, family and neighbours back home. With Afghanistan’s economy cratering, Jawad hears from people selling things from their houses to survive. Many are also scared. “You can live with hunger, but you can’t live with fear and frustration,” he said.
Reuniting families is one priority. Azatullah and Mastora came to Canada with 11 other relatives in August. But that isn’t their whole family. There’s Mastora’s husband, who lost his job with an Afghan airline and is now stranded in Jordan, and Azatullah’s six other siblings and their spouses and children too. It’s painful to be separated. “We are happy now, but our minds are over there,” Azatullah said.
“:We are happy now, but our minds are over there”
AZATULLAH, REFUGEE IN CANADA
The Canadian government will rely on partners, which include the UN refugee agency, NATO, and organizations that protect human rights defenders, to identify people for resettlement. Afghans currently fleeing and at most immediate risk will likely be prioritized.
Afghans can also be selected for settlement by an organization that holds a sponsorship agreement with the government—of which there are 130 across Canada—or by a group of five Canadian citizens. Under the private sponsorship program, those sponsoring can choose whom they help.
But Afghans who have fled within the last couple months will not have a UN document showing their refugee status. Without this document, only an organization can sponsor them. Until the government loosens these requirements, “the opportunity to do private sponsorship is extremely limited,” Dench said.
However many Afghans end up in Canada through private sponsorship, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is banking on Canadians’ capacity and willingness to help.
Cukier’s experience suggests Canadians will step up. Even after she had enough shoes, she was still being asked, “What else can I do? What else can I do? What else can I do?”
Read this article as it originally appeared in National Post on October 25, here.