Canada's lawyers in Kabul have been left behind, and are losing hope

Saeeq Shajjan’s law firm was contracted by the Canadian embassy in Kabul eight years ago. Many of his employees remain stuck in Afghanistan, waiting desperately to hear from immigration officials. They fear for their lives given the firm’s long-time relationship with Canada.

Shajjan & Associates was contracted by the embassy in Afghanistan in 2013

Saeeq Shajjan’s Kabul law firm, Shajjan & Associates, was first contracted by the Canadian embassy in 2013, dealing with a range of legal matters in Afghanistan. Now he's asking Ottawa to do more to help his employees still stuck in the country. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Saeeq Shajjan's law firm in Kabul spent the past eight years working as the local legal team for the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan. 

But with about two dozen of his employees still stuck in the Taliban-held country, Shajjan said the Canadian government is now doing little to help them.

"These are people who did all they could to help the Government of Canada, to help support the mission of Canada in Afghanistan — and it's time to make sure the Canadian government is returning the favour," he said. 

"Unfortunately we are not hearing anything." 

Shajjan's employees have submitted all the necessary paperwork to be considered for Ottawa's special immigration measures for Afghans who worked alongside the Canadian government. 

Shajjan has even provided letters from Canadian government officials he worked with in Kabul, describing his team's efforts for the embassy and the risks those left behind now face. 

A major Canadian law firm, Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, is also working on their cases after hearing Shajjan's story on CBC's The Current

Yet Shajjan's employees have yet to get a direct response from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) on how to proceed with their applications, receiving only generic auto-reply emails instead, some of which were shared with CBC News.

It's unclear why — but they appear to be caught in what experts describe as an overwhelming backlog.

Saeeq Shajjan, shown at work in Kabul, started his law firm after completing his master's of law at Harvard University. (Submitted by Saeeq Shajjan)

And as time drags on, Shajjan said they're becoming increasingly fearful for their safety under the Taliban, given the firm's long-standing relationship with the Canadian Embassy.

"I need to make sure these people are out as soon as possible," he said. "Before something irreparable happens to them." 

After the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in August, the federal government committed to bringing 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada — a process it now says will take up to two years to complete.

About 12,000 applications have been approved so far, with just 5,400 of those people now in the country.

LISTEN | Afghan lawyer Saeeq Shajjan tells The Current about his frustrations with Canada's resettlement plan:
The Canadian government promised to give asylum to 40,000 Afghan refugees after the Taliban took over. But as 2021 comes to an end, only about one tenth of that number have set foot on Canadian soil. We speak to Saeeq Shajjan, an Afghan lawyer and recent refugee to Canada, about the work his law firm has done with the Canadian government in Afghanistan; and Carla Potter, a lawyer at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, who’s leading the team advocating for Shajjan’s employees.

Ottawa has defended its response to the crisis, calling its efforts to move people out of a challenging environment unprecedented.

But advocates have repeatedly criticized the government, arguing it's been too slow to process claims, leaving too many at risk for far too long.

CBC News has spoken to dozens of Afghans who say they've been mired in bureaucracy for months, with little information about the status of their cases.

"There is now a huge schism between the aspirations of the program and what the operations are actually able to deliver," said Warda Shazadi Meighen, a refugee and human rights lawyer in Toronto.

"We're at this place where we really need to bridge the gap quite quickly, because these folks just don't have the time to wait." 

Canada's Kabul law firm 

Shajjan & Associates was first contracted to be the Canadian Embassy's law firm in Kabul in 2013. 

The firm handled a variety of legal matters, ranging from major real estate transactions, including the $18-million purchase of Canada's main embassy building, to direct dealings with the Afghan government. 

"We did all we could to make sure the Embassy of Canada had the best possible legal representation in Afghanistan," Shajjan said. "We also made sure that the embassy's reputation was protected."

Though the embassy is now shuttered, the firm's contract is still valid until the end of this year.

A copy of Shajjan & Associates most recent contract with the Canadian Embassy in Kabul. It's still valid until Dec. 31, 2021. (Submitted by Saeeq Shajjan)

Shajjan is now resettled in the Toronto area under the special immigration measures program, and he continues to provide legal advice to the government on issues related to Afghanistan. 

But most of his time goes toward advocating for his employees who are desperately waiting to hear back about their applications. 

Two Global Affairs Canada officials who've known Shajjan and his colleagues since 2013 have written letters outlining the firm's contribution to the Canadian Embassy and its efforts in Afghanistan.

The letters also reference the threats Shajjan and his team encountered because of their work — risks those left behind still face. 

"Mr. Shajjan and his team are well known locally to be Canada's local law firm and to have a close working relationship with Canadian staff at the embassy," said one official. 

"I have personal knowledge of threats made against him and his firm from some local parties," another wrote.

This GAC official says Shajjan and his team encountered risks because of their work for the Canadian embassy. CBC News is withholding their identity at Shajjan's request. (Submitted by Saeeq Shajjan)

Shajjan hoped the letters would help move his employees' cases along, but they've seemingly made little difference as the months go by. 

Most of his employees — including lawyers and administrative staff — first submitted their documents to be considered under the special immigration measures program in August, Shajjan said, immediately following the Taliban takeover. 

The program is open to Afghans who've had a "significant and/or enduring relationship with the Government of Canada. 

"There's little more enduring than serving the Embassy of Canada for eight years," Shajjan said. 

"I don't think there's anyone I can write to who I haven't written to, anybody who I could call I haven't already called. But still, we are hearing nothing," he said.

"I do not have the courage anymore to tell them, 'Hey, be patient, It's going to happen.'"

WATCH | Lawyer Saeeq Shajjan fears for employees in Afghanistan: 

Canada's lawyers in Kabul caught in backlog as Ottawa stalls on immigration

11 months ago
Duration 2:05
Lawyers in Kabul who represented the Canadian embassy are losing hope that they'll be able to leave Afghanistan, as Ottawa works on processing a backlog of immigration applications from the country. In August, the militant Taliban overran the capital city of Kabul and seized control of Afghanistan.

IRCC spokesperson Alex Cohen said he could not comment on specific cases, citing privacy concerns. But he said IRCC has rapidly adapted throughout the crisis, even without a "playbook that could be dusted off and implemented." 

"Over the past few months, we've added resources, cut red tape, and acted quickly…" Cohen said.

But the case of Shajjan's employees is akin to so many others, said Shazadi Meighen, where the government has been slow to respond — appearing to struggle with the influx of applications. 

By now, she said, the government's response should be more efficient. 

"No one could have predicted that the Taliban would have taken over as fast as they did," she said. "But we have now been in this position for several months.

"At this point we should be far, far, far along. And we're just not there." 

'It absolutely should not be this hard'

Shajjan first spoke out about those left behind in an interview with The Current in October, shortly after he and his family had arrived in Canada. 

Toronto lawyer Kristin Taylor was listening and immediately contacted Shajjan. 

"It felt like a colleague reaching out in dire circumstances who could really use our help," said Taylor, the managing partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP.

The firm's first step was to reach out to IRCC. Carla Potter, another lawyer at the firm, is leading the team advocating for Shajjan's employees. In October, IRCC employees told her the agency didn't have the initial submissions, she said, but it's not clear why.

Potter said her team then re-filed the requests to be considered under the special immigration program on behalf of all of Shajjan's employees in early November. 

Toronto lawyers Kristin Taylor and Carla Potter, with Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, are helping Shajjan with his employees' cases. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

"We're ensuring that we do everything we can for them," Potter said. "But certainly, as Canadians, we didn't expect to be met with the level of frustration and red tape that we have been so far." 

The firm is also willing to help pay for the group's travel to Canada from a third country. But without the IRCC paperwork to help facilitate travel out of the country, the employees are essentially stuck in Afghanistan.

Potter and Taylor update Shajjan every week on their advocacy efforts but say they often only have frustrating news to share. Until IRCC responds to the submissions, they're caught in a holding pattern.

"It absolutely should not be this hard," said Taylor. "These are people who were working for us and, I think, have a sense of being abandoned because of how this has all unfolded." 

While Shajjan is grateful to now be living in Canada with his family, he says his heart and mind remain in Afghanistan with his employees. 

"I have a moral responsibility to these people," Shajjan said, arguing Canada does too. "I will keep trying to do whatever I can to make sure they are safe.

"And I really need the Canadian government to pay attention to this." 


Ellen Mauro is a senior reporter based in Toronto, covering stories in Canada and beyond, including recent deployments to Haiti and Afghanistan. She was formerly posted in Washington, D.C. where she covered the Trump White House for CBC News. Previously, she worked at CBC's London, U.K. bureau where she covered major international news stories across Europe and Africa.