Ian Mulgrew: Canada's refugee system continues to fail Afghans

Vancouver Sun

Ian Mulgrew Vancouver Sun Nov 24, 2022  

“We have been here for a year and two months. We don’t have a Pakistani visa as our visa expired at the end of June. We have applied for a new one, but we are not expecting to get it.”

Momtaz and her family are the kind of refugees that you would think Canada would encourage, but the bureaucracy of the immigration system has created an unequal, complex and often-unfair process.

Although the country promised to take in 40,000 Afghan refugees after the Taliban seized power again in August 2021, just a little more than half have made it. As of Nov. 16, the total was 25,220.

A somewhat earlier breakdown shows the special immigration measures program for those who assisted Canadian troops in Afghanistan received 16,560 applications and approved 11,105 of them, with 9,035 having arrived Canada. Another 14,835 Afghans had arrived through other government-assisted refugee and privately sponsored refugee programs.

As well 670 extended family members have arrived after qualifying under the program for former interpreters who had already resettled in Canada.

The programs don’t come close to meeting the need.

Unlike Ireland or other countries that dropped requirements such as visas and official documentation, Ottawa has been slow to respond to complaints.

Consider that this country has taken in 109,000 Ukrainians since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded.

Immigration Department spokeswoman Isabelle Dubois said Ukrainians come using existing temporary resident visa processes and with the help of a large expat community.

“This is not a refugee program, as compared to our Afghanistan refugee resettlement program, since Ukrainians have indicated that they need temporary safe harbour. Many of them intend to return to their home country when it will be safe to do so.”

Displaced Afghans such as Momtaz feel abandoned and shut out, especially given the encouragement to embrace western values that they received.

Momtaz and her husband operated an IT company that worked with Google in Afghanistan and she opened the first yoga studio in Kabul.

“On June 21, 2020, international yoga day, we decided to have a session outside. … We had our session on the hillside. There were 20 of us. The media picked up the social media invitation and there was a lot of coverage, photographers, news agencies, I received so many phone calls. They came and covered and it was an explosion on social media and the news.”

But the pictures of a score of women outside doing downward dog was too much for Afghanistan’s fundamentalist religious leaders.

 “They threatened me and declared a jihad against us,” Momtaz said. Then there were death threats.

“I could not leave the house for two months. From that time, my life changed. In the year before the coming of the Taliban (in August 2021), my life, my work, my activity was totally changed. I knew Afghanistan was no longer a place for me. I tried to leave, but I couldn’t get a visa for any neighbouring country.”

Momtaz had arranged to get on an evacuation flight but she couldn’t get through the chaos surrounding the airport. Those who had covered her and gave her the publicity turned their backs on her.

“There were two weeks of evacuation from Afghanistan. Most of the journalists who had support people there, their contact person, they got them out. The New York Times journalists who reported on my story, Nike, The Guardian, the National Geographic, Al Jazeera, none of them supported me. One who made a documentary film on me supported others to evacuate, but not me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

She already has three of the five sponsors in Vancouver, a financial angel who will fund the family and a brother who moved to Toronto after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. She needs two more sponsors, one with a certificate showing he or she has completed the required sponsorship course.

“There is no future for us in Pakistan,” she lamented. “It is not safe and the big challenge is Pakistan has announced they will deport us back to Afghanistan if we don’t have a visa. We don’t. Of course, when they deport us back all of us, the Taliban will be waiting.”

She is not hopeful.

“We haven’t made any progress … Canada sent me a link to the immigration department, and at the time I visited the site, there was no opportunity for me. The humanitarian visa criteria was so complicated … it was a kind of rejection.”

No matter, Fakhria insisted: “I will continue my fight for the well-being of women and our rights in Afghanistan.”