When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Sunday snap federal elections would be this fall, his speech, like all party leaders’ campaign speeches, began with a different topic: the sudden takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
While Conservatives’ reluctance to get Syrians to Canada quickly played a part in the 2015 campaign, there’s no partisan spin on it this time around. During the first week of the campaign, all major party leaders said they supported the effort and promised to continue if they ousted Mr Trudeau from power.
Everyone I spoke to in the refugee community expects that, as we saw with the Syrian newcomers, large numbers of Canadians will come together to privately sponsor many of the Afghan refugees.
Catherine Rodd, a spokeswoman for the United Church of Canada, said that even unsolicited, about 60 of her congregations have indicated that they want to sponsor Afghan refugees privately. Private sponsorship through that church brought in thousands of Syrians.
But before anyone starts furnishing apartments and arranging school arrangements, the Afghans, whose lives may be in danger, still need to get out of Afghanistan. On Friday afternoon, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said that two huge Royal Canadian Air Force transport planes were pulling refugees from Kabul.
The rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan makes it unclear how many such flights will be possible, although Mr Mendicino said the government was determined to “keep those flights going for as long as possible”. including a live briefing, here.)
Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, summed up this week’s meeting with government officials about bringing in refugees from Afghanistan when she said, “They haven’t made many of the kind of pretty basic decisions about this yet. .”
And there is a long list of decisions to be made. At this point, Ms Dench said, no one knows whether the 20,000 refugees will be people currently on the run or those who have already escaped Afghanistan but are trapped in refugee camps elsewhere. Trudeau’s government must decide whether to follow Syria’s precedent of waiving various rules around documents. It is also unclear whether the government will only accept people referred to it by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a potentially time-consuming process, or whether it will try other channels and perhaps target those with one or more other link with Canada.
Above all, no one has yet said how many of the 20,000 refugees will be privately sponsored rather than government resettled.
Ms Dench indicates that it is likely that private sponsors will again play a role. But she and others warned that unless policy changes, these sponsors will face a heavier bureaucratic burden this time around, including “explaining exactly what they have for people who gain weight.”
The upshot, she said, is that some sponsors are hesitant to re-sign for fear they will “just be overwhelmed by the government demanding all kinds of paperwork and justifications it hasn’t done in the past”.
In Quebec, which has unique powers on immigration, it appears that private sponsors will have no role at all. Flore Bouchon, the press secretary for the minister of immigration and international relations, said the province has temporarily suspended private sponsorship by organizations and this year’s deadline has passed for applications from groups of two to five people. She said the province is committed to hosting Afghans but that they will be “assisted by the government”.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They used brutal public punishment, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their track record as rulers.
There is also another problem. Karen Cocq, the campaign coordinator for the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, told me that there are already Afghans whose refugee claims have been denied or whose immigration status is not well documented for other reasons. In most cases, she said, those people appear to have a legitimate claim but were turned down for arbitrary reasons, often with paperwork. The current crisis, Ms Cocq said, means that a way must now be found for them to stay in Canada.
“Arbitrary administrative requirements and processing requirements do not sufficiently recognize the circumstances in which people find themselves and the realities of people fleeing conflict and violence,” she said.
Canada, of course, played a major role in NATO’s 20-year war against the Taliban and in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, an effort that now appears to have been washed away. The price was terrible. Of the 40,000 military personnel who served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014, 158 members of the Canadian Forces died. Other Canadian deaths included seven civilians — including a diplomat — four aid workers, a government contractor and a journalist. Thousands of soldiers returned home with physical and mental injuries, and many of them are still recovering.
Roger Cohen, a former opinion columnist for The Times who has rejoined the news side, has written a thoughtful analysis of how and why the mission went so wrong.
[Read: For America, and Afghanistan, the Post-9/11 Era Ends Painfully]
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for NewsMadura for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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