As It Happens·Q&A

Canada will not abandon Afghans in need, vows immigration minister

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says Canada will not abandon the thousands of Canadians and vulnerable Afghans who are still trapped in the country under Taliban rule. 

Thousands of Canadians and vulnerable Afghans stranded under Taliban rule after Canada halts rescue mission

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says Canada will accept 5,000 Afghan refugees who were evacuated to U.S. bases. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says Canada will not abandon the thousands of Canadians and vulnerable Afghans who are still trapped in the country under Taliban rule. 

Canada was able to get 3,700 people out of Afghanistan before it halted its evacuation efforts at the Kabul International Airport last week. That's a fraction of the 8,000 people who applied for visas under Canada's emergency programs for Afghans worked with the Canadian government or belong to vulnerable groups

What's more, an estimated 1,250 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families are still stranded in the country.

Canada announced Tuesday it has reached an agreement with the U.S. to accept 5,000 Afghan refugees who have been evacuated to American bases. 

Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, spoke to As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong about that agreement. Here is part of their conversation. 

Who are these 5,000 people who Canada's going to be bringing in from these U.S. bases?

The 5,000 Afghan refugee referrals that will come from the United States marks an important milestone in our shifting into high gear. The humanitarian resettlement program … places the focus on women, girls, religious minorities, LGBTI [people and] human rights defenders. So our hope is that with the assistance of our partner, the United States, in this, that we will receive Afghan refugees that fall squarely within those priorities.

As we saw yesterday, the coalition completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. This marked the conclusion of an historic military evacuation, but not the end of our efforts to support the people of Afghanistan. And we are going to continue to exhaust every effort to help them as much as we can.

Taliban fighters stand inside an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 31, after the U.S. pulled all its troops out of the country to end their involvement in a brutal 20-year war. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

What about the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the country to Pakistan or Iran who still need help?

They're in transit status, they're in third countries, they're displaced, they're vulnerable, [and] they need a home. And this is where Canada can lead, as we have done in so many instances in the past, including with … Syrian refugees.

But with regards to those Afghans who remain in Afghanistan, we are in constant contact with them. We are providing them with the best possible advice that we can when it comes to where they should go, when they should go, and most critically, providing them with the visas that they need, which provides clear and strong language that they should be granted safe passage to resettle to Canada. That is work that is going on day and night.

We spoke recently with a guy named Samandar Khan, who's an Afghan, a journalist in Kabul. And last week, he said the Canadian government told his family to travel to the airport immediately. They were told to go to Camp Barren, find a meeting point underneath this Canadian flag and wait for further instructions. But those instructions never came. And despite Canada issuing his family visas, they never got through to the airport. They never got onto a flight to Canada. And this is a guy who had other options, Minister. He could have gone through this process with Germany or Ireland…. So what do you say to people like him who are left behind in Afghanistan and feel the Canadian government has left them behind?

It's distressing to hear that, and obviously we want to make sure that we can do whatever is within our means and capabilities to provide him with support. And as I said, we're remaining in contact with emails and hotlines.

The real impediment to getting people out is the violence and the volatility. As you heard from the gentleman himself, he had those visas in hand. And so what we're doing is we're working with regional partners to make sure that our expectations are made abundantly clear to the Taliban. And over the course of this past weekend, I think that we've seen some progress in that they have provided some preliminary assurances that they will respect safe passage rights.

So as the dust settles and now the coalition has withdrawn, critical services like the airport will eventually have to resume. And when that happens, we want to be sure that all of the people that have applied and are eligible under our programs have the clear paperwork they need. 

Ahmad Naween, a 19-year-old Afghan photojournalist and son of journalist Samandar Khan, took this picture while waiting at Camp Baron, a residential compound outside the Kabul International Airport, for Canadian officials who never came. (Ahmad Naween)

I also spoke last week with the head of an NGO that spent months getting all of their people out before the crisis really began…. Why didn't the Canadian government do more then to get these people out?

Canada has been a safe haven for Afghan refugees for years. Since 2015 alone, we've resettled approximately 9,000 Afghan refugees. So this work, this military evacuation where Canadian Armed Forces went back after having been gone for 10 years … we put them into a very, very complicated and dangerous operation. And notwithstanding those challenges, we were able to safely evacuate [3,700 people], the vast majority of which were Afghan refugees.

I think we all read the story in the Globe and Mail by Mark McKinnon, who co-ordinated safe passage for some, including a military interpreter who worked for the Canadian military … through Ukraine's military to get them onto the base and onto a flight out. How did it feel to see a private civilian and a foreign military taking action that I think most people would have assumed would be done by the Canadian government?

The Canadian armed forces took extraordinary action, and I would just say that they performed in very difficult circumstances with great bravery and valour. 

But look, I commend the efforts of others who stepped up. I think it's great when we see Canadians who are all united in the common cause to try and get Afghans out. We're grateful to Ukraine for having facilitated the resettlement of these Afghan nationals who have supported journalism and free press.

That's why I announced as minister the pathway to protect human rights defenders, including journalists. We believe that it's important not only that we provide humanitarian resettlement opportunities, but that there is an accounting of what is going on on the ground. So this is going to be not only a whole-of-government response, it's going to take all Canadians.

And the responses that I'm getting from businesses, from NGOs, from settlement service organizations, from ordinary Canadians who are writing to us day in and day out, offering their homes and their hearts, is how Canada is going to lead. 

It's been a really, really tough time for the people of Afghanistan. These past few weeks are indescribably painful, but we are going to be there to support them as much as we can.

Just lastly, sir, this crisis obviously is happening in the midst of a federal election campaign. What do you say to people like Senator and longtime refugee worker Ratna Omidvar who told CBC News this morning that she's worried that the election will distract from a situation that does need urgent action?

Yes, it is true. There is an election. We are still in the midst of a pandemic. There are important choices for Canadians to make…. But rest assured, the government is focused on continuing this work. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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