Hunted by the Taliban, Afghans who worked with embassy sue Ottawa over immigration delays
Their lawyers say they don't want money — they want to get out of Afghanistan
Afghans who worked with the Canadian embassy in Kabul — and are now hiding from the Taliban — are suing the federal government, accusing Ottawa of dragging its feet on their immigration claims and demanding that it settle them without delay.
Newly unsealed court documents say 24 former employees of a law firm retained by the embassy — and one guard employed by the embassy — are living in fear because they've been given no indication from the federal government that they'll be able to move here.
"Canada is proud to be among the first countries to launch a humanitarian resettlement program for Afghan refugees," Deputy Minister of Immigration Christiane Fox told Toronto lawyers Sujit Choudhry and Maureen Silcoff in a letter dated Dec. 2, 2022.
The lawyers had written to her seeking information about their clients after launching a lawsuit in September over what they saw as unreasonable delays in processing their immigration claims.
Fox asked the lawyers to have each of the 25 plaintiffs — most of them still living in hiding in Afghanistan — sign representative forms giving their consent for the lawyers to receive updates about their cases from the government.
"The matters you have raised in your letter pertain to application processing and operations rather than matters arising in the context of the litigation," Fox wrote.
The statement of claim filed by the two lawyers — which was posted publicly in a less redacted form only this week — reveals new details about their clients.
Twenty-four of them were employees of a former Afghan law firm, Shajjan and Associates, which was retained by the Government of Canada from 2013 to 2021 to represent the embassy in legal matters in Afghanistan. Those matters included everything from traffic accidents involving diplomatic staff to real-estate transactions.
The other is a security guard who was employed by the embassy for a decade and was praised for their "tremendous" work in a letter signed by former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan Glenn V. Davidson. The letter singled out the guard's actions in an unspecified emergency on April 15, 2012.
That's the day then-foreign affairs minister John Baird condemned a number of terror attacks on the Afghan Parliament and western embassies.
In an affidavit filed with the court, the guard, identified only as 'AA' in the document, said a manager told them on August 15, 2021 that all employees of the embassy would be brought to Canada following Kabul's fall to the Taliban and the closure of the diplomatic mission.
"I believed this to be true," AA wrote.
The guard said in the affidavit that, unable to leave Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover, they went into hiding and applied under Canada's Special Immigration Measures for employees of the Canadian government or Armed Forces, along with their loved ones.
The guard wrote they and their family members destroyed the sim cards for their mobile phones after they received a call sometime last year from someone claiming to be a member of the Taliban.
"The caller said they would find me, which terrified me," the guard wrote.
The names of all claimants have been redacted from the 1,289-page statement of claim. Their lawyers say they're in danger of Taliban retaliation due to their work at the embassy in Kabul.
Homes searched by the Taliban
In the statement of claim, Choudhry and Silcoff report most of the homes of the 24 former legal staff have been searched by the Taliban.
Two of the former staff members have been interrogated by the regime.
"The Taliban kidnapped one applicant and tortured him over the course of more than two months," the lawyers wrote. They offered no details.
Most of the ex-employees of Shajjan and Associates said in the court documents they frequently change addresses to stay one step ahead of the Taliban.
One, identified as OO in the documents, said they began moving around after the Taliban arrived at their family's home and pointed guns, demanding to know their whereabouts.
"Their search lasted two and a half hours. They went through all of our belongings and even searched between the pages of books," another former employee, EE, wrote.
"Ever since I went into hiding, I kept track of phone calls from Taliban members. I would save their numbers on my phone so that I would know not to answer their calls," wrote another former employee, TT.
"The Taliban has been incessantly interrogating and harassing me for information about the firm," wrote a former employee of the firm identified only as UU, who is also in hiding in Afghanistan. An acquaintance told the Taliban UU had fled to neighbouring Pakistan.
Several of the claimants said they face a heightened risk because they are Hazara and Shia, ethnic and religious minorities targeted by the Taliban.
Most of the claimants told the court they are registered with the Afghan Independent Bar Association. The Taliban regime obtained a list of association members after it came to power.
Plaintiffs say they want freedom — not money
Silcoff told CBC News the claimants aren't looking for money from the federal government — they just want a decision on their applications.
"We're asking the court to compel the federal government to make good on its promise to bring people to Canada who had a significant and enduring relationship with the government of Canada," she said.
Most of the plaintiffs are now past the first step of the Special Immigration Measures program and have received an invitation to apply from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Silcoff said one of the plaintiffs has received the green light to come to Canada but she would not say if the applicant has arrived here yet.
Silcoff noted that the federal government only started to move on the plaintiffs' applications after they sued.
"These are people who made Canada's work in Afghanistan possible," she said.
"Without these people and others like them, Canada wouldn't have been able to do the work it did for so many years."
Saeeq Shajjan, the founding head of the law firm, did manage to get to Canada in 2021. Now based in Toronto, he said he's working to bring his former employees to safety here.
"Most of my time is taken up by this work. I'm concerned about the safety of my people in Afghanistan," the visiting Harvard University scholar told CBC News.
One of the plaintiffs, identified only as HH in the court documents, spoke to CBC News from a remote location in Afghanistan.
"We were happy that we were the face of a reputable embassy in Afghanistan and a government like Canada. We were working with and we were representing it. It was such an honour for us," he said.
HH recalled Shajjan calling all employees to an office meeting room on August 14, 2021 and announcing that the building would shut down "for a few days." He said Shajjan told staff to work from home until concerns about the Taliban had abated.
"We were not sure that the Taliban could take over all Kabul," he said.
HH said he went into hiding and temporarily escaped to Iran in September 2022. He returned to Afghanistan to avoid the tensions in Iran.
HH said that while he has heard from Afghans in Canada that starting a life here can be challenging, he's more than ready to start.
"I'm sure that whenever I don't have the fear of prosecution by a terrorist group, I can do something for my life," he said.
The federal government would not comment on this case as it is before the courts.
Ottawa reports it has settled more than 30,000 Afghans since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Its stated goal is to bring in at least 40,000 Afghans.
Roughly 10,060 of them have come to Canada through the Special Immigration Measures program.
CBC News has asked the Immigration Department a number of general questions about the immigration program and will update this story if it receives answers.