Afghans targeted by the Taliban say they have no idea how to secure Canadian visas

There are large numbers of Afghans who fit the Government of Canada's criteria for a humanitarian visa. But the program is still not processing individuals — and there is no way to apply directly to the federal government.

Government's effort to take in 40,000 at-risk Afghans could be much slower than its 2015 Syria operation

The work that Nelofar Akbari (circled left) did to teach Afghan village women about their legal rights put her on the wrong side of the Taliban. (Nelofar Akbari)

Nelofar Akbari is the kind of woman officials in Western nations liked to cite as an example of progress in Afghanistan — right up to the point when all that progress came crashing down and the Taliban came back.

A graduate of Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, she worked with the German government's overseas development agency on rule-of-law advocacy and passed the bar in 2015. Almost every job Akbari did in the years that followed was risky.

In Mazar e-Sharif, she was involved in domestic violence cases. She worked on terrorism cases involving accused who were Taliban. She toured remote villages, teaching village woman about their legal rights relating to marriage and divorce.

All that work made her a Taliban target. Today, many of the men Akbari helped to put behind bars are free, while she sleeps in a different place almost every night.

"As a human rights activist and member of civil society, I'm afraid of those fundamentalists and extremists that think that my words and activism are agnostic beliefs, and as a defence lawyers I'm afraid of those criminals that I have run their cases in court and seen sentenced to jail," she said.

Akbari worked for the German development agency GIZ and was invited to Germany to meet Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. (Nelofar Akbari)

She wants to come to Canada. But she doesn't know how. And she's not the only one.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, Canada and many other Western countries were taken by surprise and scrambled to assist Afghans who had worked for them directly — often as military interpreters or as locally-engaged staff at embassies and on development projects.

The Trudeau government has so far brought about 2,500 such people to Canada and has issued special visas to roughly another 7,000.

In September, the government also announced a separate humanitarian visa program to help Afghans who may not have worked directly with Canada, but who would face a high risk of retaliation from the Taliban — "those who put themselves at personal risk by defending democracy and upholding human rights," as Foreign Minister Marc Garneau put it.

'I feel very hopeless'

"Canada became the first country in the world to announce a program that will address the growing humanitarian need and welcome 20,000 vulnerable Afghans and we are reaffirming our commitment by increasing the number of vulnerable Afghans to be resettled to 40,000," Emilie Simard, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), told CBC News.

"This work focuses on women leaders, human rights defenders, religious and ethnic minorities like Sikhs, Hindus and Hazaras, LGBTQ individuals, journalists and others."

Akbari is one of many Afghans who check more than one box on the government's priority list — but she said she has no idea how to get herself noticed, or how the program will work.

She has sent emails to IRCC but has received no response.

"I feel very hopeless. Sometimes I cry," she said. "I hope to get a visa and leave Afghanistan."

No direct applications

IRCC is not accepting applications for the humanitarian visa program — nor is it selecting refugees directly. 

Instead, the program will draw from a pool of people recommended by outside agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

It's the same process Canada has used to resettle thousands of refugees in the past, mostly from long-established refugee camps.

The standard definition of "refugee" in international law refers only to people who have fled their own countries, not to the internally displaced. But Afghanistan collapsed so suddenly that many vulnerable people have not been able to leave.

The Canadian government says that, for the purposes of the humanitarian visa program, it will stretch the normal definition of "refugee" to include those who are still trapped in Afghanistan. But since the UNHCR's mandate doesn't cover people in that situation, Canada is also working with the U.S., NATO and the Irish organization Front Line Defenders to identify people inside Afghanistan who qualify for assistance.

Front Line Defenders is a group that focuses on helping rights defenders who are in danger specifically as a result of their activism.

"The Government of Canada is working in close collaboration with trusted international and Canadian partners to implement this program and we expect the first refugees to arrive under this program in the coming weeks," said Simard.

No 'immediate solution'

The lack of a direct avenue to apply for a humanitarian visa is leaving likely candidates for the program in danger, said one Ottawa lawyer working to bring them into Canada.

"I've had numerous people reaching out to me — judges, woman advocates, doctors, people who have obviously done the kind of work that would put their lives at risk," said Arghavan Gerami, a Farsi-speaking lawyer who is part of a Canadian Bar Association volunteer group working to help vulnerable Afghans — particularly those like Akbari whose legal work has left them in danger.

"They've reached out looking to see if there's any programs, immediate options that they can pursue. And unfortunately, there isn't a direct permanent residency path or any other program that is practical and provides an immediate solution."

Ottawa's Arghavan Gerami is part of a volunteer group of Canadian lawyers working to help Afghans facing Taliban reprisals. (Arghavan Gerami)

Gerami said a program that permits direct applications would speed the process up.

"So, for example, a permanent residency program with criteria similar to the health pathway that opened up several months ago," she said. 

"This is not in place right now, so what we're left with is really ... the very standard visitor visa option — which we know will be rejected because these individuals will not be able to say that they're going to leave at the end of their authorized period of stay — or ... a temporary residency permit, which is also a very long shot, is an exceptional remedy to overcome not being able to meet a requirement under the [Immigration and Refugee Protection Act]."

Gerami said the government's promise to Afghans resembles its 2015 commitment to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. But that promise led to 25,000 arrivals in the space of a few short months.

Gerami said this program looks likely to take much longer.

"It shouldn't just be a pre-election sort of promise or something that's political, that there isn't the momentum and the willpower to actually get it off the ground," she said. "Let's get the ball rolling on this." 

Stranded in Tajikistan

The story of Hasina Muaser and her family shows how difficult it might be to identify and locate the Afghan refugees who most closely fit the government's desired profile — the ones who most clearly need help to escape Taliban retribution.

The 18-year-old Muaser started Afghan Koodak (Afghan Child) magazine when she was only 12. She was invited to meet President Hamid Karzai and got the attention of national and international media — and also of the Taliban, who kidnapped her.

Children's rights activist Hasina Muaser was left in a wheelchair following a Taliban attack and is now stranded in Vahdat, Tajikistan. (Zubair Muaser)

Muaser was able to escape her captors by hurling herself through a third-storey window. She survived the fall but lost the use of her legs.

Two years ago, the young activist suffered severe burns to one foot while sitting near a hot stove because her paralyzed legs couldn't feel the heat. Today, that injury needs regular treatment Muaser is unable to receive in Tajikistan, where eight members of her family live precariously in rented accommodation in a town 20 kilometres outside the capital of Dushanbe. 

Scattered around the world

Her father, who stayed to protect the family's property when his wife and children fled, disappeared in the chaos of the takeover and they feared he had been killed. They later learned that he had made it out in the chaotic evacuations and is now a refugee in Germany.

Her brother-in-law, Abdul Sharifi, served alongside the Canadian Army as an interpreter since the earliest days of its Afghan mission, and was evacuated under the special visa program. He is now in Toronto with his own wife and children, but remains worried about his sister-in-law Hasina.

As a woman with a track record of human rights activism, a documented history of being targeted by the Taliban and family connections to Canada, Muaser appears to fit exactly the criteria Canada has prioritized for resettlement. 

But stranded in a dusty corner of Tajikistan, running out of money and with her foot at risk of amputation, help feels very far away to her.

"I know that the Government of Canada will help us," she said. "But I don't know how we can get to Canada. And I hear [from] my brother-in-law that when you go to Canada, you come and be here and you will walk again."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.