As It Happens·Q&A

'There's no time to waste': Canada issues travel documents to help Afghans flee their country

After months of pressure from advocates, the federal government has issued special travel documents to thousands of Afghans to escape the country and ultimately make their way to Canada.

Single-journey documents will allow Afghan refugees to travel to Pakistan on their way to Canada

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

Story Transcript

After months of pressure from advocates, the federal government has issued special travel documents to thousands of Afghans to escape the country and ultimately make their way to Canada.

The single-journey documents are being issued to Afghans who have already been approved for resettlement in Canada. They can be used in place of passports so that they can enter Pakistan, where they will undergo the screenings required to travel to Canada.

A spokesperson for Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa told The Globe and Mail that Afghans will be given visas upon their arrival in Pakistan, allowing them to stay there for 30 days while they arrange travel to Canada.

Brian Macdonald is head of Aman Lara, a group of Canadian veterans working to rescue Afghans still in the country. Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington.

Brian, how significant is this breakthrough for the Afghans you're trying to help?

This is an incredible opportunity. I mean, this is the moment we've been waiting for. We have a narrow window to move as many Afghans as we can who lack the proper documentation. And so we are just full-on mobilized to move as they people as we can in this window.

How narrow is the window?

It's about 50 days now to get people out of Afghanistan.

A group of Afghans seeking to come to Canada on special immigration measures for former employees of the government and their families, holding a protest over travel delays in Islamabad on Canadian consular grounds in early May. Now that Pakistan has approved onward travel, they wait to find out when they may fly here. (Submitted/Asad Ali Afghan )

How much danger are some of these Afghans in right now?

Well, all of these Afghans are people who supported the Canadian mission, you know, through our 10 years in Afghanistan. And so these are all people who identified as supporting Canada and help their war effort there. And they're also people that obviously identified that they weren't pro-Taliban. And so now that the Taliban is running the country, they're in grave danger.

How many people have you heard from, at least so far, who've received these letters?

Well, we just started hearing from them yesterday, and yesterday it was 50. And they'll be even more today. And we could see the numbers are building pretty quickly.

What are people saying about finally getting this chance to get out of the country?

I think they're a little overwhelmed by the opportunity. You know … if this is the moment we've been waiting for, I can only imagine how they feel.

You know, they've been hunted. They've been persecuted. They're often in hiding. And so this is the opportunity for them to get out. I'm sure it's overwhelming to them.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets a smile from 2-month-old Hawa Rahimi as he meets her parents, Obaidullah, right, and Arezoo, left, in Ottawa, on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. Obaidullah Rahimi worked at the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan; his family is one of the Afghan families to recently resettle in the Ottawa area. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A lot of these Afghans were already approved to come here. So what was the roadblock? What was preventing them from getting here?

Every one of these applicants has been approved by the Government of Canada for onward travel. And we work closely with the Government of Canada to make sure that they're approved. But the challenge has been … in order to get into Pakistan, for example, they need to have a Pakistani visa, which means they need to have an Afghan passport.

And so getting an Afghan passport, as you can imagine, is very difficult. They've got to go to an office that's controlled by the Taliban. They have to give their name and address and fingerprints, and then all the information [about] their family, and basically tell the Taliban: "Hey, we want to leave." And there's only really one reason people want to leave Afghanistan, and that's because they're fleeing the Taliban. So it does raise a red flag and puts them in grave danger.

And, of course, you know, [it's] also bureaucratic. It takes time and money. And then, you know, the additional step of getting an exit visa to leave the country and to get into Pakistan is a challenge.

Pakistan is the place they're trying to get to, in order to get to Canada. But what role does Pakistan play in the delay that you've had?

Well, Pakistan requires an entry visa and an exit visa, so of course, you can't have a visa without a passport. And so it's required the additional step of securing an Afghan passport. These people have been approved by the government of Canada. So they passed that check. But now they had to go through the bureaucracy to get a passport in Afghanistan, and they had to go through the bureaucracy to get a visa in Pakistan, which, as you can imagine, is all very difficult and kind of an overwhelming administrative burden on people who are already under duress.

So now we've removed those two steps. They've been approved by the government of Canada. So ... they don't need the Afghan passport in this window, and they don't need the Pakistani visa. So that's why we can move so many people. And we've been moving people at a pretty good rate who have managed to get across those bureaucratic hurdles. But now that they don't have to cross those, we could move thousands in a short amount of time.

Taliban fighters stand guard at the site of an explosion in front of a Sikh temple in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 18. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Who else are you trying to get out of Afghanistan who won't necessarily be helped by this scheme?

We help Afghans who have helped Canada. We also help Afghans who are at risk for other reasons. So, for example, the LGBTQ2S+ community, we have been trying to help them. We've been trying to help journalists. We've been trying to help lawyers that work for the Government of Canada, people that were in NGOs that were funded by the Government of Canada or businesses that the Government of Canada provided funding to support — all of those groups we're trying to help.

What's the possibility, Brian, that this is happening too late for some Afghans who have been hunted by the Taliban, that the delay may have cost them their lives?

I certainly have heard reports that people have, as you know, paid the ultimate sacrifice for their support of Canada, that they have been killed — or worse — by the Taliban. We've heard those anecdotes. We don't track that information; we are focused on getting people out … as quickly as possible. Whatever the method.

You said the window is 50 days. How many people do you think you can get out of the country in that time?

Well, our target is 3,000 in the next 50 to 60 days. And we're pretty confident we can do that. The challenge is really making sure that people are ready to move. So … there's no time to waste.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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