As It Happens

This veterans group says it can no longer help people get out of Afghanistan

A Canadian veterans charity that has helped more than 2,000 Afghans get out of the country says it has to wind down its efforts on that front.

The Veterans Transition Network says bureaucratic red tape has left its staff frustrated and tired

Afghan refugees who supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan prepare to board buses after arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Aug. 24, 2021. (MCpl Genevieve Lapointe/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/Canadian Armed Forces Photo/Reuters)

Story Transcript

A Canadian veterans charity that has helped more than 2,000 Afghans get out of the country says it has to wind down its efforts on that front.

The Veterans Transition Network (VTN) cites logistical nightmares, bureaucratic red tape and worker exhaustion for the decision. The group is calling on the Canadian government to fast-track the immigration process for Afghans who supported Canada's mission in the country.

"It was a really difficult and frustrating decision to make," Oliver Thorne, VTN's executive director, told As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins

"We've been engaged in supporting these efforts for the past eight months now and myself and the team and the entire organization has become incredibly invested."

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says the government has not wavered on its commitment to relocate 40,000 Afghans to Canada, but noted there are "obstacles facing us in Afghanistan that were not present in other large-scale resettlement efforts."

"IRCC recognizes many vulnerable, at-risk Afghans who have qualified under our programs remain in Afghanistan, unable to leave. We have established new partnerships, as well as building on existing ones, to address safety and security constraints limiting the mobility of Afghan persons," IRCC spokesperson Aidan Strickland said in an email.

30-day mission becomes 8-month effort

VTN's original mission is to support Canadian veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. But when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August 2020, it decided to step up and help with the evacuation of Afghan interpreters and others in the country who worked with the Canadian government and military. 

"A big part of the reason we became involved in this campaign is because we saw how veterans unanimously were voicing their support for their interpreter colleagues," Thorne said. 

VTN acted as the charitable fundraising arm for volunteer networks of veterans who were working to get their colleagues out of the country, he said. But what started as a 30-day fundraising campaign to help a couple hundred people quickly ballooned into a gruelling eight-month effort. 

"What happened over the course of August is that the situation fell apart far more quickly than any of us had anticipated," Thorne said.

"Our efforts were really kicked into high gear, so we really decided to lean in and not lean out."

Former Afghanistan interpreters begin a hunger strike on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 31, 2022. One man holds a sign that reads: 'We helped you and now is the time you help us.' (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The work, he says, paid off. VTN says it has raised $4.6-million for its evacuation efforts, and has helped 2,061 people flee the country so far. 

But the charity says it will stop accepting donations for that work on May 2. Any money donated before then, it says, will be used for evacuation efforts as the charity winds down the project over the next six months. After that, VTN plans to refocus its efforts on Canadian vets at home.

"It's really going to take, you know, the dedicated focus of some migration professionals to unstick this logjam and really make this process work. And unfortunately, you know, we are still needed here at home," Thorne said. 

Vets calls on Ottawa to treat Afghans like Ukrainians

When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last summer, the federal government created special immigration programs for Afghans from vulnerable groups and those who worked for the Canadian government.

On top of that, Canada has vowed to bring an additional 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada, a process it says could take up to two years. So far, about 11,165 Afghans have arrived in Canada.

But advocates say many people who qualify to come to Canada remain trapped in Afghanistan or marooned in third-party countries.

Retired Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson, who is on VTN's board of directors, told The Canadian Press he knows of 700 Afghans in Pakistan who can't get to Canada because they don't have an exit visa from that country. He also knows of least 500 others who are ready to leave Afghanistan, but can't safely reach a third-party country.

"The pipe is stuck, essentially," said Thompson, who is also an adviser to the board of Aman Lara, a Canadian NGO that's been running safe houses in Afghanistan.

Both advocates are calling on the feds to adopt measures to fast-track the process, similar to what's being done for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion

Thorne says the "pointy end of the spear" for Afghans is the requirement to undergo biometrics screening — which generally involves the collection of digital photographs and fingerprints — before entering the country. 

Canada has waived biometrics requirements for Ukrainian minors and seniors seeking visas to Canada. Thorne says they should expand that policy to eligible Afghans. 

"Without being able to do biometric verification in Afghanistan, that means that people need to go to a third country. So now that introduces a whole host of administrative challenges with securing visas, passports, exit visas and all of the wait time and administration that goes along with that," Thorne said. 

He also says Canada should start providing consular support in Afghanistan again. Canada closed its embassy in Kabul when the Taliban, which the government classifies as a terrorist organization, took over the country. 

Retired Canadian Maj.-Gen Denis Thompson photographed in Kandahar in 2008. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Funding is another issue. Sanctions prohibit Canadians from spending money in Afghanistan that will end up in the hands of the Taliban, either directly or indirectly, meaning requests for federal funding are stalled and operations within the country are limited.

In an open letter sent April 4 to the ministers of justice, public safety, foreign affairs and international development, nine humanitarian organizations, including the Red Cross, pleaded with the Canadian government to change this, noting that other countries have found a way to exempt humanitarian groups from sanctions.

The IRCC says Afghanistan's Taliban leadership is "preventing any diplomatic engagements or negotiations whatsoever and creating significant barriers to facilitating the exit of Afghan nationals from Afghanistan."

The department says it has partnered with veterans organizations, added more employees and resources to process applications, and boosted its presence in Pakistan. 

"The situation in Afghanistan remains very challenging and we are truly appreciative for all the work that Aman Lara, the Veterans Transition Network and others have done to support this collective effort," Strickland said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview with Oliver Thorne produced by Sarah Jackson.

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