Why doesn’t Canada treat Afghan refugees like Ukrainians? Because they aren’t ‘white and Christian,’ complaint alleges

The Star

Stephanie Levitz The Star Fri., Feb. 3, 2023

OTTAWA – Afghan-Canadians are formally accusing the federal government of discrimination over the difference between immigration programs for Afghans and Ukrainians trying to flee violence in their home countries.

Four men who deployed with the Canadian military to Afghanistan filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal after their families were left out of the special immigration program created in 2021 to help resettle Afghans with a connection to Canada.

“They are letting in Ukrainians who can’t even find Canada on a map, but us? Who risked our lives and now our family’s lives? To them, we’re nothing,” one of the complainants, who worked as a language and cultural adviser for the Canadian Armed Forces, told the Star in an interview.

The Star is not identifying the man out of concern for his family’s safety.

The Star has learned that two of the complainants have settled with the government after mediation. As a result, the government must implement a new public policy by Friday to expand eligibility for Canada’s Afghan resettlement program.

However, the other two men are still pursuing their complaint, arguing that the settlement — which would apply to them as well as 45 other language and cultural advisers — doesn’t go far enough.

The advisers, known as LCAs, were recruited by the CAF in Canada and sent to Afghanistan to help soldiers navigate the unfamiliar cultural terrain during Canada’s decade-long involvement in the war.

Unlike interpreters who were hired on contract via multinational firms, the LCAs were akin to serving members of the military, wearing uniforms and given high-level security clearances to carry out their work.

However, when the Afghan government fell to the Taliban in 2021, family members of LCAs weren’t included in a special program to bring Afghans who worked alongside the government and their families to Canada.

A group of former LCAs raised the alarm in September 2021, warning of danger to their families. They said they were told Ottawa was exploring options, but nothing materialized.

Even as the Canadian government expanded access to resettlement for minority religious groups, human rights advocates and others, the LCAs were told their only option was to use regular immigration programs like family sponsorship.

Then, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government set up another immigration program, called the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel to allow Ukrainians to flee to Canada.

Among other things, that program dropped requirements for an overseas medical exam and all immigration fees. It promised 14-day expedited processing of visa applications and placed no caps on the number of applications under the program.

No such barriers to resettlement in Canada were dropped for LCAs.

That prompted four of them to file a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, in which they argued the differences between the Ukrainian program and the options available to them from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada amounted to discrimination.

A copy of the complaint — and the government’s response — was obtained by the Star.

The complaint noted that the cost to help LCAs was small compared to what was being spent to help Ukrainians, and that health risks could not be relevant, considering the government was allowing unvaccinated Ukrainians to enter Canada.

Any question of the security threats potentially posed by LCA family members should also be moot, the complaint said, given the high-level security clearances of LCAs, and the fact some even still work for Canada’s security agencies, the complaint said.

So, there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn, said the complaint, submitted by law Prof. Amir Attaran.

“If I may be so blunt, systemic racism and bigotry very much appear to be the issue,” Attaran wrote. “It does not escape my attention that Ukrainians are in the main white and Christian; Afghans not so much.”

Since the complaint was filed in May, at least two of the men have alleged that their family members have been detained and tortured by the Taliban.

One of the complainants noted that some of them still work in classified jobs and risk being placed in an untenable position of being asked by the Taliban to give up secrets in exchange for their family members’ safety in Afghanistan.

In their response to the complaint, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada argued there were no grounds to claim discrimination on the basis of national origin.

People who aren’t Ukrainian nationals or their family members don’t have access to the specific Ukrainian program, IRCC wrote in its response.

“If that were the case, IRCC would be unable to respond in a targeted facilitative manner to any humanitarian crisis without responding equally and simultaneously to all humanitarian crises,” it reads.

“IRCC also responded to the crisis in Afghanistan with facilitative measures that are not open to persons of other nationalities.”

Under the terms of the settlement between the IRCC and two of the men, there is no admission of wrongdoing by the government.

The new public policy will allow listed family members of LCAs to immigrate to Canada, provided they meet certain health and security conditions that are similar to the existing regime in place for other Afghans. Certain fees are also being waived, and the newcomers will have access to health care.

The policy will cover all former LCAs. The two who have refused to settle with the government argue that its limitations on which family members can come to Canada are unfair.

How many people will now be able to gain admission to Canada as a result of the policy change is unclear. In their mediation process with the government, the four men submitted a list totalling upwards of 100 relatives.

Canada has promised to settle as many as 40,000 Afghans under existing special measures programs. Around 27,000 have arrived to date.