As It Happens·Q&A

Immigration Minister responds to criticism over Afghan resettlement numbers

It's been a year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but today many Afghans are still desperate to flee — including those who helped the Canadian government and military. 

Government promised a year ago to resettle 40K Afghans. Only about 17,300 have made it to Canada

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser says the delay in getting more Afghan refugees to Canada is in part due to the challenge of dealing with the Taliban and the lack of a centrally managed effort to process them on the ground. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

It's been a year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but today many Afghans are still desperate to flee — including those who helped the Canadian government and military. 

Despite the federal government's commitment to resettling 40,000 Afghans, officials can only say that, so far, they've resettled over 17,300 refugees. 

Canada's minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Here is part of their conversation. 

What's the hold up, minister? What's taking so long? People's lives are at stake here. 

What's taking so long is primarily driven by the fact that a significant number of the people that we hoped to bring to Canada are in a territory that's controlled by the Taliban — a listed terrorist entity in Canadian law that is not interested in helping the people who they are persecuting arrive to another country that's willing to provide them with a safe haven. 

There's more than 8,000 people who are well on their way to being approved to come to Canada who are still inside Afghanistan. Unlike other refugee resettlement initiatives, we don't have access to these people with a presence on the ground. There is no centrally managed effort by the United Nations to process these people.

So you've resettled more than 17,000 Afghan refugees since last year. Meanwhile, more than 70,000 Ukrainians came to Canada in 2022, so far alone.

The NDP MP Jenny Kwan has said that kind of a stark difference between the government's treatment of these two groups is not right. How do you explain the discrepancy? 

When we're dealing with people who are coming to Canada as refugees from Afghanistan, we know that they're coming here permanently. And we know that by and large, many of them can't get here on their own.

The reason you're seeing significantly larger numbers of Ukrainian people come is because we set up a pathway that brings them here on a temporary basis as, effectively, visitors to Canada. We designed that program out of necessity because it was the quickest and most powerful way to create a pathway for large numbers of people to arrive. But we don't deal with the same challenges about securing safe passage through a third country.

So the two situations simply can't be compared on the basis of numbers, particularly when one group has access to commercial aircraft and can arrive in Canada on their own volition, as opposed to a group who's coming to be resettled permanently and needs to be chartered here and potentially be spirited away from a country that we don't currently have access to, since the Taliban has seized control. 

Women demonstrate ahead of the first anniversary of the Taliban's return to power in Kabul on Saturday.
Taliban fighters fire into the air as they disperse a rare rally by women chanting 'Bread, work and freedom,' days ahead of the first anniversary of the hardline group's return to power. Canada promised to take in 40,000 refugees but has so far only welcomed about 17,300. (Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images)

Brian McDonald is the head of a veterans group that is actually actively helping people to escape Afghanistan. He says, as you point out, there are thousands of Afghans who have been approved and are still stuck for reasons that you've outlined. But he also says that there are thousands more waiting for answers from the Canadian government.

What do you say to him and to those Afghans who we've heard some of them can't get through the Canadian bureaucracy to even get a response?

What I would say to Brian and have said to Brian is thank you. 

The challenges that people have run into when it comes to dealing with the processes that are internal to the government are very dramatically based on their individual circumstances. And sometimes those challenges are driven not by IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], but dealings with third countries. 

There's quite a large number of people who faced difficulties in third countries before — for example, Pakistan — where they had made their way out of Afghanistan but perhaps didn't have an appropriate legal status in Pakistan and were not being allowed to leave without having a valid travel document.

Again, this would put people in a position where they would need to approach the Taliban, their persecutor, in order to demonstrate that they had permission to to transit through Pakistan from would travel to Canada. 

WATCH | UN coordinator says 19 million people in Afghanistan have difficulties finding food: 

Afghans urgently need help, says UN co-ordinator

1 month ago
Duration 8:26
The world should find ways to get more medicine and food deliveries into Afghanistan, says Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator based in a country where he says people are selling their belongings to survive.

There are 18,000 spots available through the Special Immigration Measures Program, and that's aimed at Afghans and their families who assisted the Canadian government or the Canadian military. But you're no longer taking new referrals for this program. Why not? 

There are 18,000 spaces allocated for that program, but in addition, there are 5,000 more spaces for the extended family members of people who were resettled here previously. 

We've so far issued about a little more than 15,000 invitations to apply to people who may qualify for these programs. We continue to release the remaining spaces in tranches to make sure that we're reflecting unpredictable family sizes, recognizing the fact that not everyone who receives one of these invitations accepts the invitation and goes through the process of applying to come to Canada. 

In addition, some of the people who qualify for Canada's programs also served alongside other partner states who were involved in Afghanistan and may have qualified for some of those other programs. They also may be eligible for private sponsorship in Canada through the spaces we've made available through those pathways, or through other pathways on the basis of their status as a human rights defender or the referral based on their vulnerability.

Why have a cap at all?

It's really important when you're dealing with people who are going to be coming to be resettled as permanent residency, that we plan not just to get them here, but to have them do well. We continue to work with the settlement sector to make sure that we're giving them the resources they need to do well and to make sure that we can have this effort go forward in an organized way that can be efficiently managed. 

What do you say to the people who would say it sounds good to want to set people up for success — but some of these people are just hoping to survive? 

I'd say that we're trying to do what we can to help them and to move them as quickly as possible.

One of the things that I don't think people have a full appreciation of is how difficult refugee resettlement has become over the past couple of years. A lot of the global infrastructure for things like the referral process through the United Nations, through our major partners who historically have done large humanitarian lifts in response to refugee initiatives like the United States, really wound down their resettlement infrastructure over the past number of years.

We're going to continue to do what we can to help those people who are just seeking to survive because of their being persecuted by the Taliban or because they've made a particular contribution to Canada's efforts in Afghanistan. 

Written by Stephanie Hogan. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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