Janice Dickson, The Globe and Mail, May 23 2022
When Saeeq Shajjan, the founder and managing partner of the Kabul law firm Shajjan & Associates, fled Afghanistan and made it safely to Toronto in early September, he thought his colleagues would not be far behind.
Almost nine months later, Mr. Shajjan says his former co-workers are becoming increasingly anxious at the prospect of being abandoned, with no clear path to Canada.
There are 28 lawyers and employees who worked for Shajjan & Associates, a firm hired in 2013 by the Canadian embassy in Kabul and Global Affairs Canada, who are seeking refuge in Canada. They have not heard anything after contacting Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and Global Affairs Canada.
A young lawyer who worked at the firm told The Globe and Mail over Zoom that she lives in fear, wondering if the Taliban will capture her. She said it is disappointing that the Canadian government gave them hope – but has not done anything to help them.
A colleague, also on the call, wondered who Ottawa is helping if not them. He said they have the long and enduring relationship that would qualify their group for resettlement under the government’s special immigration program. He is losing hope, he said, and changes his location constantly.
The Globe is not identifying the two lawyers because they are fearful of Taliban reprisals.
The young woman at the firm said she applied for resettlement in August and that IRCC has not responded to her e-mails. She said when Canada announced that it would welcome 40,000 Afghans, including those who worked for the government, Ottawa gave the “expectation of being rescued.” She said that through their work at the firm, they represented Canadians, especially the embassy, and so they are known.
Both lawyers described living in secrecy and said they can’t apply for jobs in Afghanistan because they cannot disclose their previous work. They face additional risk because they are from the Hazara ethnic minority.
Mr. Shajjan said he has dedicated his time to trying to bring his colleagues to safety. “Every morning that I get up, I’m looking at my WhatsApp and hoping that I don’t get any negative news from Kabul.”
For months, he’s advocated at the “highest possible level” but nothing has changed. He said he’s met with IRCC officials and has watched opposition members of Parliament raise his colleagues’ case at parliamentary committees and in the House of Commons. Still, there’s been no change.
Mr. Shajjan said he thought that if he was accepted to Canada, it meant his colleagues were also eligible. According to an e-mail that Global Affairs Canada sent to Mr. Shajjan in January, GAC had referred the names of his colleagues to IRCC. But they still haven’t heard anything.
Julie Lafortune, a spokesperson for IRCC, said that for privacy reasons, the department is unable to provide specific details on cases.
“The Government of Canada has received hundreds of thousands of communications from those expressing interest in coming to Canada since the fall of Kabul. Regrettably, this is a far larger number than we can bring to Canada. The unfortunate reality is that not everyone who expressed interest in coming to Canada will be eligible under our program,” she said.
The federal government has promised to welcome 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada. So far, more than 13,000 have arrived and about 6,225 have come under the special program for Afghans who assisted the Canadian government. Canada has also promised refuge to vulnerable Afghans including activists, journalists and LGBTQ Afghans under a special humanitarian program.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said at a parliamentary committee recently that he expects everyone who will be brought to Canada, or who reached out and will not be accepted, to have an answer within the next few weeks.
Lawyers at Toronto law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell have also been advocating for the group. Ardy Mohajer and Carla Potter, both partners at the firm, told The Globe that for months they have been urging the government to assist Mr. Shajjan’s colleagues.
Mr. Mohajer said the special immigration program is “a bit of a black box,” and they thought the group would have been invited to officially apply by now. “We have an obligation as a country to help those who helped us,” he added. Ms. Potter said the process has been long and trying for those in hiding.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan wrote a letter to Mr. Fraser and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly in December, saying that she wanted to bring their attention to the law-firm employees stuck in Kabul and that they are facing “very credible threats” to their lives.
She said in an interview that the situation is “absolutely devastating.” Ms. Kwan said the group asked for assistance from the government in August, and the response has “been crickets.”
“Why haven’t these individuals whose lives are in imminent danger, who are hiding on a daily basis from the Taliban, have not heard from IRCC? How is this even possible?”
Ms. Kwan said she is concerned that the government will simply leave them behind, adding that she is drafting another letter and is calling on the government to commit to bring them to safety.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the government has promised to admit 40,000 refugees “but most of them are trapped in Afghanistan and are being hunted by the Taliban, particularly those who work closely with Canadian diplomats and the Canadian military.”
He said the Prime Minister needs to direct the Immigration Department to “clear the red tape and make it a priority to process those Afghans with an enduring significant tie to Canada.”