Nicholas Keung The Star Thu., Sept. 22, 2022
As Canada reaches the halfway point of meeting its commitment to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser says he’s not ruling out lifting the current cap and welcoming more into this country.
But for the moment, he says, his main focus is the 8,500 people to whom Canada has already promised refuge who remain stuck in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
“When we hit that target (and) we have the ability to continue to support all of the people through additional pathways, then we’ll do what we can,” Fraser told the Star in an interview Thursday, on the eve of the arrival of the 20,000th resettled Afghan in Toronto on a charter flight from United Arab Emirates.
“What we have done is made the commitments to the 40,000. But we have not taken a decision never to do more for people from Afghanistan.”
Fraser’s softened tone was in contrast to how his office had previously underlined to media Canada’s commitment to meet the target it announced last October.
In June, the Star reported that Ottawa planned to stop taking in Afghans after it had enough applications to fill the announced spots, despite the fact that many who risked their lives to help the Canadian mission were still waiting for a response to their applications.
“The unfortunate reality is that not everyone who expressed interest in coming to Canada will be eligible. … We are doing everything we can to help Afghans inside and outside of Afghanistan,” Fraser’s press secretary told reporters at the time.
Fraser said there are currently 8,500 Canada-bound Afghans still inside Afghanistan who need to get to another country to complete the resettlement applications and meet requirements such as biometrics and health screening.
These applicants to whom Ottawa has already committed are his top priority and he is working with the international community to find ways to get them out of the country, he said.
He would not reveal the different options officials are investigating.
“I learned through my experience with this effort not to expect a smooth ride. We’re dealing with a territory that’s under the control of a group that’s listed as a terrorist entity in Canadian law. There is very little patience that the Taliban has for people who are eligible to come to Canada,” he explained.
“These 8,500 people who are already in the process are still inside Afghanistan. We are not wavering on our commitment to bring those individuals here. If it was a matter of bringing in any 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada, we could have done that.”
In terms of processing displaced Afghans who are now in a third country waiting to come to Canada, Fraser said the largest groups are in Pakistan and Tajikistan. But many of those are privately sponsored by community groups and their applications may fall outside the special resettlement programs.
This week, the Globe and Mail reported that a Manitoba senator’s office had issued an inauthentic Canadian government document to help facilitate an Afghan family’s travel.
Fraser said an internal investigation confirmed the document — known as “facilitation letter” to help eligible Afghans get through Taliban checkpoints — was inauthentic and that the matter has been referred to law enforcement.
“The integrity of the process has not been compromised because even the authentic letters that we did issue do not permit a person to enter Canada. An individual who used them to move through the airport still has to go through the application process and be issued an invitation to apply and complete the process and other steps required,” he said.
“To our knowledge, no one has been able to use an inauthentic facilitation letter to enter the program, but only to transit to and through the airport.”
Fraser said the Afghan resettlement project has been the most difficult but also rewarding task in his entire life and career as a parliamentarian.
He said it’s humbled him as he’s heard an Afghan woman arriving in Newfoundland saying “she finally has a home”; played soccers with the kids of a group of Afghan human rights defenders in Edmonton; and seen a new arrival kissing the ground of the tarmac in Toronto.
“It’s a great reminder of the lottery of birth that we win as Canadians, by virtue of being born in a country that is safe, where we take for granted that our communities will be peaceful places to grow up,” Fraser said.
“It’s not lost on me that we will have a lot of work ahead of us to make good on our commitment to hit 40,000.”