Immigration minister says getting refugees out of Afghanistan a major challenge

National Post

Ryan Tumility, National Post, May 12 2022

OTTAWA – Canada’s immigration minister pledged to reduce backlogs across his department caused by the COVID-19 pandemic before the end of the year, but said getting refugees out of Afghanistan will continue to be a major challenge.

“I’m actually quite confident the vast majority of our lines of business will be back to about the service standard by the end of the year,” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told MPs at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday

Fraser said that should include permanent residents and family reunification, as well as the government’s commitment to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada by the end of this year.

The Liberal government made that pledge last summer during the election when the Afghanistan swiftly fell to Taliban forces. The government got some refugees out of the country before the Taliban took complete control, but thousands of people with ties to Canada were left behind.

Fraser said getting Afghans who have fled to other countries to Canada should be relatively straightforward, but for those living in Afghanistan it’s difficult.

“I am confident we can still do that but I don’t want to breeze over the fact that the territory is controlled by the Taliban,” he said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat things. It is really challenging to move people through Afghanistan and the stories are the most heartbreaking things.”

Conservative MP Jasraj Hallan said he heard from frustrated refugees that the government appeared to consider them security threats and are insisting on time-consuming and detailed checks.

Fraser said that isn’t the case.

“There’s not an internally held view that there is a class of people that have served Canada that pose a security threat to our national interest.”

NDP MP Jenny Kwan told Fraser the delays that Afghan refugees have seen are unacceptable and urged him to do more to address the problems.

“Afghan interpreters with enduring relationships to Canada are being captured by the Taliban and are being tortured. Every second of the day counts for the lives of these individuals so I am absolutely astounded with the process here,” she said. “Maybe the minister should think about the option of engaging the military and asking them for help to bring people out of Afghanistan.”

Outside of Afghan refugees, Fraser said he hopes to alleviate the long waits that grew while COVID-related travel restrictions delayed the system.

During the pandemic, the government shifted the immigration focus to offering permanent residency to people who were already in Canada. Through a temporary resident-to-permanent resident program, they extended offers to student visa holders and people already in the country on work permits.

The government is still processing applications for people who applied through that program and will only start draws for economic immigrants abroad in July. On top of that, Canada has made large commitments on Afghan refugees and Ukrainians looking to flee the war.

The backlog across the system is so long that the department has put restrictions on the number of enquiries it will take from even MPs offices.

Fraser said he wants to eliminate that rule soon, but it’s a result of the large number of cases waiting in the backlog. He said every public servant responding to individual MPs is a public servant not helping to clear that backlog.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said Fraser should be focusing on the larger issue.

“We’re not the problem. We’re a symptom of another problem, but insofar as that problem exists people need to go to their members of parliament and seek their support and advocacy,” he said.

Fraser was also asked about Ukranians fleeing the war. The government has rejected calls to provide visa-free travel to people fleeing Ukraine, instead creating a new program that allows Ukranians to come to Canada and work for up to three years.

But the program comes with an application process that includes biometric scanning and other measures for many applicants. Fraser said more than 200,000 people have applied through the program and approximately half of those have been approved to come to Canada, but only about 25,000 have actually made the trip here so far.

He said he is confident that the number of approvals will catch up with the applicants soon.

“Our capacity to process people exceeds the demand that’s being put onto the system, so the numbers in the inventory will continue to come down if that remains the case,” he said.

He said, during a recent trip to Europe, he found many people fleeing Ukraine want to be able to return to their home country and are getting Canadian travel approvals as more of a safety net.

“The people are, largely speaking, wanting to stay as close to Ukraine as possible.”