As It Happens·Q&A

Canada will meet Afghan refugee goals despite 'extraordinary' challenges, vows minister

A flight with more than 200 Afghan refugees landed in Vancouver on Tuesday night. But many Afghans with ties to Canada are still at risk. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser says Canada won't abandon them.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser says more than 200 Afghans landed in Canada on Tuesday, with more to come

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser says bringing 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada is 'a top priority for the government of Canada.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser had some good news to share Wednesday morning.

A flight with more than 200 Afghan refugees landed in Vancouver on Tuesday night. Fraser tweeted the news, noting that "many put themselves at risk to help Canada before, during, and after our mission in Afghanistan."

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. 

But many Afghans with ties to Canada are at risk right now. They're dodging the Taliban in Afghanistan. They're trying to support families as refugees in Iran and Pakistan. And they're desperate to take Canada up on its promise of safe haven.

Here is part of Fraser's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

It was great to see the photo you tweeted of Canada's Afghan allies arriving in Vancouver. But we know that Canada identified thousands who needed that kind of assistance, who were targeted by the Taliban for working with us, and that we were going to help them. And that was in the summer. Why is it taking so long to get them out?

The challenges in Afghanistan are extraordinary. We had an influx of just shy of 4,000 in the immediate evacuation. But then, of course, when Canada lost its diplomatic presence after the fall of Kabul, getting access to the people who may have made an application facilitating their safe passage from or travel to Canada is extraordinarily challenging in a way that most people who've not been to a war zone could appreciate.

But now things seem to be stabilizing from the immigration processing point of view, and we are seeing processing continue, and arrivals happening at a pace that gives me a great sense of optimism.

I have to make a full disclosure here that I have been working with Journalists for Human Rights, one of the agencies that is helping to get Afghans out of the country. But that's given me a pretty good sense of what's going on.

You say that they've applied. Many of them were identified, were told by Canada that they would get this assistance. But then they were told that they'd have to find their own way out of Afghanistan first. And we know that many of them have disappeared since then. Their houses have been burned down. We know that some are killed. We know there's a 10-year-old girl who was shot dead by the Taliban as they drove around trying to get the paperwork, all the red tape they have to go through in order to do what your government says they must do. So what are you doing to help them get out of the country?

A lot of Canadians are looking at the government's effort in Syria and the pace at which we moved people in the early days of that effort. And one of the things that I really hope Canadians pay attention to is that the situation in Afghanistan is nothing like the effort to resettle Syrian refugees.

In Syria, we were dealing with people who were three years removed from the outbreak of the civil war, and hundreds of thousands or millions made it out of the country into refugee camps that were being centrally managed by the [United Nations refugee agency] that had processed people for security reasons, that had access to an airstrip that was functioning, who had no trouble accessing travel documents from their future homes.

In Afghanistan, none of those advantages are present. We're dealing with months since the fall of Kabul. We do not have a diplomatic presence to facilitate the safe passage of people through Afghanistan or outside of Afghanistan. If the Taliban wanted to help us — which they don't — they wouldn't be very good at it. We're dealing with people who don't know how to operate an airport, and the airport in Kabul is not functioning properly.

Without a presence in Afghanistan, we're dealing with a situation where the Taliban is controlling which travel documents people need to exit the country to potentially pass through checkpoints within the country. And the documents that are being required of the third countries that are being used as a lily pad before people travel onwards to Canada, those documents change based on where you're going and how you're getting there.

What we're trying to do to facilitate travel through third countries for onward passage to Canada is working with our partners in the region, like Pakistan, like the UAE, like Qatar, like Tajikistan. There are conversations happening every day between our partners in the region to help facilitate the safe travel of these vulnerable human beings to their final destination in Canada.

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

When you talk about the Syrian refugees … in 100 days, we brought 25,000 Syrians into Canada. And part of it was because you had agreements with countries in place that were going to help with that. So you said you're in conversations now with [with third countries]. These people are about to be deported from countries like Pakistan and Tajikistan and from Qatar. So why don't you have those agreements in place already?

We are having conversations with the folks where people currently are that would like to come on onward to Canada. I have confidence that the people who've been approved for onward travel to Canada will be able to find their new homes here. 

When there are particularly troublesome cases or cohorts of individuals who are facing a potential expiry of their travel documents, we reach out to our partners in the region to help ensure that those people, which Canada has a responsibility to, will not be sent back to Afghanistan, where they may face persecution or torture or worse.

You say that you are trying to prevent people from being deported. We spoke with a woman in Nova Scotia [on Tuesday] night, Nicole Wood, who's helping a family to come to Canada. She is quite concerned that his visa … in Pakistan means he has to go back to Afghanistan every month to get it reprocessed. And every time he does that, which is going to be in a few days now, he risks his life. He could be disappeared.

I can't offer comment on individual cases without having all of the details at hand, and I need to respect the privacy as well as individuals who are going through the process. 

But the entire reason that we've made a commitment to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees, with a specific focus on those who've helped Canada in our time of need, is because we believe that we have a moral obligation to help those who've helped us.

Are there going to be cases that are extraordinarily challenging? Obviously, yes.

But it is those challenging circumstances and the fact that these people are being persecuted that justified what is, in my mind, the most generous resettlement effort when it comes to Afghan refugees, when you factor in the size of the country.

There are going to be bumps along the road. There are going to be challenges. But this has got my full attention and is the file I've spent more time on than any other since I was appointed because it's a top priority for the government of Canada.

Written by Kevin Robertson and Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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