Conservatives, advocates call on government to expand special Afghan immigration program

CBC News

Darren Major · CBC News · Posted: Jul 21, 2022 12:36 PM ET | Last Updated: July 21

An Afghan refugee holds a small Canadian flag at the St. John's International Airport, on Oct. 26, 2021. (Ritche Perez/Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada)

The Conservative Party and Afghan refugee advocates are calling on the federal government to expand the special immigration program meant to prioritize former employees of the Armed Forces or the Canadian government and their families.

Last week, the government said it was no longer taking new referrals and would be processing the last of the 18,000 applications to that program.

At a press conference on Thursday, Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan castigated the government for not keeping the program open to more applications. He said several applicants his office has been in touch with have yet to receive responses from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The delays, Hallan said, are causing "hardships" and threatening Afghans' lives.

"To put a cap on the numbers was unacceptable, in our opinion, in the first place," he said.

Hallan was joined at the press conference by a number of refugee advocates who echoed his argument that the government should extend the program. One of them was Saeeq Shajjan, a lawyer who worked with the Canadian Embassy in Kabul.

Shajjan fled the Taliban last year. He said a number of his colleagues in Afghanistan who applied to the special program never received a response from the government, despite having documentation proving they had worked with the embassy.

"I do understand that it's not an easy process, it does require a lot of work," he said. "But at the same time, what I see and what I'm frustrated at is we did not receive any response for my colleagues."

Government says other programs still available

The special program was set up nearly a year ago, a few weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August of last year. It's part of the government's overall commitment to settle 40,000 Afghan refugees in Canada.

Earlier Thursday, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser were asked if they plan to reopen the program to accept more applications.

Neither gave a direct answer to the question and instead pointed to the difficulties the government is facing in getting refugees out of Afghanistan with the Taliban now in control.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government remains committed to resettling Afghan refugees but added the situation on the ground is complicated right now.

"The challenge right now is actually getting people out of Afghanistan, which the Taliban is not allowing for. It's extremely difficult to even process people in the country right now," Trudeau said.

Fraser's office said last week that there are other other avenues for Afghans who wish to come to Canada, such as a humanitarian program and a program to help families of former military interpreters who are already here.

But Hallan said those programs are also experiencing difficulties and backlogs.

"It is completely unacceptable that the government is throwing people from one bureaucratic mess into another," he said.

Hallan said he wants the government to work more closely with organizations on the ground and increase coordination with third-party countries to help process and resettle more Afghans.