Canada-bound Afghans left in the dark after two charter flights from Islamabad are cancelled

CBC News

Raffy Boudjikanian · CBC News · Posted: Jun 29, 2022

Two charter flights scheduled to leave Islamabad for Canada carrying Afghan refugees failed to depart Pakistan this week, CBC News has learned. 

"That was quite disappointing; to find out that the flight was cancelled," said Jameel Haqmall, a former Canadian NGO employee who fled Afghanistan in May with his family after months of living in hiding.

"Everything was packed, everyone was in the mood of travelling," he told CBC News from his hotel room in Islamabad on Wednesday morning.

Then came the tersely worded email from the United Nations International Organization for Migration, listing Haqmall's name and that of his 23 family members. 

"Your scheduled flight to Canada for the 29th is cancelled for the moment. Once we have new schedule, we will give you an update," it read. 

It was the second flight cancelled this week. The first was bound to Saskatoon Monday night, and was also cancelled without any explanation. Passengers arrived to the airport and were distributed boarding passes before being told they had to leave.

No explanation for the cancelled flights were provided to Haqmall or his family by the UN, the government of Pakistan or the Canadian government. Eleven previous flights from Pakistan have brought Afghans to Canada in the last few months.

Tory MP's comments rile Pakistan

The cancellations come shortly after the Pakistan government expressed outrage over recent comments by Conservative MP Tom Kmiec in the House of Commons.

On June 17 Kmiec questioned the Liberal government over its plan to spend $50,000 for a visit in 2020 by a Pakistani general, Qamar Javed Bajwa. 

"General Bajwa has been accused of toppling two governments in Pakistan. The military under his command has been involved in human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings and has links to terrorism groups," Kmiec said.

On June 23, The Daily Pakistan newspaper reported Pakistan's foreign office had summoned Canada's High Commissioner to discuss the remarks.

This Monday, Pakistan's Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif, slammed the Canadian government in Pakistan's Parliament, over remarks made by the Calgary Shepard MP.

"I believe the Canadian lawmaker does not represent his country or people," Asif said.

It's not clear whether the diplomatic tensions between the two countries contributed to the flight cancellations. But the dispute comes not long after Pakistan promised to help speed up the process for those fleeing Afghanistan by issuing temporary transit visas to facilitate travel to third countries. 

A Canadian government official, who spoke on the condition they not be named because they are not authorized to speak on the subject, said "it's a risky narrative to give [Kmiec] that much power," and attributed the cancellations instead to "a lack of communication within the Pakistani government."

Haqmall said relations between the two countries shouldn't limit his family's immigration prospects. 

"I hope that the Canadian government can find a solution to this issue as soon as possible," he said. 

Asad Ali Afghan, a former Canadian military interpreter who is in Pakistan with his family awaiting a flight to Canada, said most of the families in Islamabad who smuggled themselves through the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have now obtained legal permission to leave the country, but remain unsure when that will actually happen, now that two flights have been cancelled. 

Work with Pakistan ongoing: Ottawa

CBC News reached out to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser but neither addressed the diplomatic row between Ottawa and Islamabad directly, nor did they explain why the flights have been cancelled, but they said they were working on solutions. 

"We intend to keep working with Pakistan to find solutions to the issues facing our efforts," Joly's spokesperson Adrien Blanchard said in a statement, adding that Pakistan remains "an important geopolitical partner for Canada in South Asia."

Fraser's spokesperson, Aidan Strickland, could not provide a timeline for when flights would resume, citing operational safety reasons, but said in a statement that "every step along the way there's a unique challenge depending on the circumstances," and the department was focused on moving people quickly and safely. 

Asad Ali Afghan, who has been in Islamabad for eight months, told CBC News he could not think of the last time flights out of Pakistan were cancelled or delayed.

Pakistan's High Commission in Ottawa referred requests for comment to the ministry of the interior in Islamabad, which has yet to respond.

Meanwhile, Kmiec defended his speech in a statement to CBC News, saying "Conservatives will always ensure the Liberal government gets value for its money and isn't incurring frivolous expenses."