November 2, 2021: Sally Armstrong is a human-rights activist, journalist and author. Julian Sher is an investigative writer and documentary filmmakerfrom Montreal who trains journalists around the world.
They are the brave Afghans – the women’s rights campaigners, peace activists and journalists – who risked their lives telling their stories to Canadians. And now, sadly, the Trudeau government risks abandoning them.
With much fanfare, Ottawa vowed to bring in 40,000 people from Afghanistan after the Taliban swept back into power in August.
More than two months later, only about 2,500 Afghans have made it here.
Many of those fall under “special immigration measures” that allowed fast-tracking for Afghans who had a “significant and/or enduring relationship” with the Canadian government or army – such as embassy staff and military interpreters. Afghans who worked for Canadian media organizations were also considered.
The problem is that this narrow definition does not take into account those who “interpreted” the war for Canadians back home – the women and men who for the past two decades were the sources in our newspapers and on our TV screens, telling us the sometimes ugly truths of what we liked to call “the good war” in Afghanistan.
We are among the many Canadian journalists who tried to tell their stories. We are now working with Journalists for Human Rights to try to bring as many Afghans to safety as possible.
We could not have done our reporting without people such as Sharifa. (For her safety, we are only using her first name.) After the Taliban took over in 1996, the windows at her Kandahar home were painted over so no one could see her.
She told a visiting reporter about a man who came from Saudi Arabia and was ruining Afghanistan; everyone was afraid of him. Then she pointed to his house on the edge of the city. His name? Osama bin Laden.
Sharifa had a job in an orthopedic hospital funded by the Canadian government where she assisted patients who had lost limbs – some having had a hand chopped off, a punishment by the Taliban.
She stuffed naan bread and sweet cakes into a journalist’s pocket with the parting words: “Ask the women in your country to be our voice.”
Today she and her husband and children are hiding in Kabul, terrified, targeted for acting as an interpreter and giving information to a Canadian. She is begging Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to lead them to safety.
Bismillah Watandost, too, has been waiting with no news from Ottawa.
The father of eight children, he was one of the leaders of the People’s Peace Movement. Hundreds trekked across the country in 2019 calling for an end to the “forever war.”
He shared his story on camera and provided valuable research for a Canadian TV documentary that has been seen around the world; he bravely called out both the Taliban and the Western-backed government for killing innocent civilians. Today, he tries to operate an online news site under Taliban rule in Kandahar, the city that was their birthplace, and as a result faces death threats. “We are under danger, we are not safe,” he pleads.
These Afghans – and countless more like them – do not appear to fit under Ottawa’s special immigration measures even though, arguably, they did just as much as official employees of the embassy or army to help Canada in the Afghan war. They, along with the bulk of the 40,000 people Canada says it will accept, are being told they must apply as “vulnerable groups,” such as women leaders and human-rights defenders.
But to do that, according to Ottawa’s rules, they must be outside of Afghanistan and be sponsored by traditional refugee organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
This condemns the vast majority of vulnerable people who precisely because of their outspoken work remain trapped inside Afghanistan.
The Trudeau government needs to widen its definition of special immigration measures to fast-track these forgotten “interpreters” of the war – the journalists, women activists and human-rights defenders who helped Canadians understand the war and its consequences.
New Immigration Minister Sean Fraser needs to create a more direct path to Canada for those Afghans who do get out, essentially putting in place the kind of rescue package we built for Syrian refugees. That means temporarily exempting Afghans outside of Afghanistan from the UNHCR’s Refugee Status Certificate requirement, which can take years and requires setting up processing centres in Qatar and Pakistan, where many fleeing Afghans are ending up.
Canada also must contribute to the urgent rebuilding of Afghanistan, regardless of what government is in power.
To do anything less is to abandon the Afghan people, and our principles.
Read this article as it originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on November 2, here.