2 Afghan families need help now. But a Toronto-area group says Canada needs to move faster

CBC News

Sara Jabakhanji · CBC News · Posted: Jan 19, 2023

A Toronto-area community group says it has cash, jobs lined up and people ready to help two vulnerable Afghan families come to Canada, but it says the federal government is not moving fast enough to get the refugees out of danger.

The Georgetown Friends of Refugees Committee 3 is trying to help nine Afghan refugees. It's working through the United Church of Canada, which has a private sponsorship agreement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). But a member of the committee, Ken Thorn, said the church has permission to bring in only 25 refugees in 2023 under a special program that admits vulnerable Afghan nationals.

"Twenty-five for the whole country through the United Church is just absurd  ..  it's utterly absurd," an exasperated Thorn told CBC Toronto from Georgetown, Ont., a community 56 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

"Because we could bring nine this year if they would let us."

Eight of the nine refugees Thorn's group is trying to help have fled Afghanistan and are hiding in Pakistan, while one remains in Turkey. The group's effort follows a vow by the Canadian government to bring in 40,000 refugees after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August of 2021. However, Canada has managed to admit only 27,435 so far and has faced criticism that it is not moving fast enough to fulfil its promise.

For more than a year now, the Georgetown committee has been sending money to the two families as they wait to be accepted into Canada. The group also raised more than $85,000 after the federal government required sponsorship groups to come up with at least 70 per cent of their proposed budget for the families they sponsor.

The two families have been accepted under Canada's Operation Afghan Safety program, which was established to expedite the immigration of Afghans to Canada through private sponsorship. The first family is a father, two sons and one daughter. The second is a mother, her daughter and three sons.

But last week, Thorn said, the church told his group that the family of five made it onto their list but the other one didn't.

"We're seeing if there's something else we can do through the United Church to get them to Canada."

CBC Toronto reached out to the United Church of Canada for comment on the situation but has not received a response so far.

The special sponsorship program is designed to admit vulnerable Afghans, including those who identify as LGBTQ, persecuted religious minorities, human rights defenders, women leaders and journalists. Sponsors are required to provide financial help and help the families resettle. But Thorn said his group is prepared to do that.

"We're just trying to get them here as soon as we can," he said.

The group first sponsored two Syrian refugee families to immigrate to Canada in 2016 and 2019. Thorn said the first family became Canadian citizens last year, while the second family is "counting down the days" until they are eligible to apply for their Canadian citizenship.

Adeena Niazi, founder and executive director of Afghan Women's Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services, said difficulties processing refugees through private sponsorships are common and should be expedited.

"The process is very slow ... The longer the refugees wait, the more risk they face. And some of [them] might have lost their life," Niazi said.

"A majority of the refugees are at high risk because once they leave Afghanistan, the intimidation and persecution continues in Pakistan."

Niazi said through its sponsorship program, her agency has helped sponsor and resettle more than 5,000 refugees in Canada, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria. It also helps between 20,000 to 22,000 refugees each year.

Committed to reaching 40,000 goal, IRCC says

IRCC confirmed to CBC Toronto that the United Church is limited to just 25 slots for Afghan refugees under the special program, as are all Special Agreement Holders (SAH). But in spite of numerous obstacles, a ministry spokesperson said, Canada is "firm" in its commitment to resettle at least 40,000 Afghan refugees by the end of this year.

"Unfortunately, the global demand for resettlement exceeds the number of refugees countries with resettlement programs can provide," said Stuart Isherwood in a statement to CBC Toronto Tuesday.

"IRCC currently faces a historically large inventory of private sponsorship applications, which already contains more applications than available spaces for admissions."

The ministry said it's processing private sponsorship applications for roughly 7,000 Afghan refugees. Of those, an additional 3,000 spaces were given to Sponsorship Agreement Holders ...  through Operation Afghan Safety to use this year.

IRCC said it has provided "over and above" the number of spaces each SAH receives as part of their annual allocation to sponsor refugees globally.

"Currently, all spaces have been distributed, but more spaces could become available if SAHs return Operation Afghan Safety spaces that they aren't planning to use," Isherwood said.

A global cap for the number of applications they can accept was implemented in 2021 to manage intake and processing times.

Niazi said she hopes the government considers opening up more slots for settlement agencies to help bring more Afghan refugees to Canada.

"We also have the resources, we have the money, we have everything, but our hands are tied because we don't have the quota, we don't have the spaces."