Canada treating Afghans, Ukrainians differently: lawyers

Two immigration lawyers say there is an unfair difference in how the Canadian government treats refugees from Afghanistan versus how it treats refugees from Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced a special program for Ukrainians attempting to emigrate to Canada, called the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUATE). Under CUATE, there won’t be a limit on the number of Ukrainians coming to Canada temporarily.

This program will enable Ukrainian nationals to apply for a free visitor visa that will allow them to stay in the country for three years as opposed to the standard six months – and they can also apply for open work permits and study permits, free of charge.

“This is basically how all immigration programs should be for everyone,” Cassandra Fultz, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, told CTVNews.ca.

“But instead, it really is night and day if we talk about the programs for Afghanistan’s refugees.”

As of March 4, Canada has only resettled 8,580 of the promised 40,000 Afghan refugees since August 2021, after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It is estimated that it would take another two years to meet the federal target of 40,000 refugees.

The humanitarian program in place for Afghan nationals requires candidates to not be in the country, be part of groups like women leaders or human rights supporters, and qualify as refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

“People applauded the Canadian government for quickly instituting measures to help Afghan refugees back in August 2021,” said Maureen Silcoff, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto, in an interview with CTVNews.ca.

“The problem with that system, though, is that they’re not accessible to many people. Many people have applied and remain in limbo, often in dangerous conditions. Too many people have been asked to wait, but they can’t wait.”

There is a second program for Afghan nationals who assisted the Canadian government, such as interpreters who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces or local staff who currently or used to work at the Embassy of Canada to Afghanistan.

But according to Silcoff, candidates eligible for this program are dealing with long waiting times while their lives are in danger.

“I’m assisting someone who is basically stuck in hiding, and they applied in August 2021 for these immigration measures. The person worked as a security guard for the Canadian Embassy in Kabul,” she said.

“And they got auto-reply after auto-reply. And as recently as last week, they received threats from the Taliban, that they know that they’re working for the West and that essentially, their lives are at risk.”

The security guard’s application has remained pending since August, with no updates as to when he and his family will receive assistance.

Fultz says that the red tape required for Afghan nationals to enter Canada, including their needing a UNHCR refugee status, differ drastically from what is being required of the Ukrainian nationals.

“They’re not coming in as refugees at all, but rather get a visitor visa plus situation,” she said.

“We have had many people from Afghanistan contact our office after the disaster happened at the end of summer last year … Everyone is saying the Taliban wants to kill me. They want to kill my family. And it’s absolutely terrible.”

“The worst thing is, there’s not much we can really do for them.”

Fultz said that even if her clients meet the requirements of the program, only 40,000 people will be accepted — which is a finite number of people who can benefit from the program, as opposed to the no cap requirement for Ukrainian nationals.

Maryam Masoom is one of the 200 women from Afghanistan who were able to safely enter Canada under the humanitarian program and now calls Saskatoon her home.

But the process was anything but easy.

“It was the scariest experience of my life,” said Masoom. “I wasn’t sure we’d make it out alive.”

Masoom was a student at the Marefat School in Kabul, which champions education for women. A talented singer, she was the leader of a group of around 200 singers.

Her team received assistance from 30 Birds Foundation, an organization dedicated to evacuating women from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Masoomi was able to secure a Canadian visa one month after she applied. She drove 12 hours to Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. But she couldn’t find a flight out of the country for two weeks and eventually returned to Kabul.

From there, Masoomi and her group took a four-hour journey to Jalalabad, west of Kabul, and then 2.5 hours to the border with Pakistan, where they crossed over. While en route, she was stopped by members of the Taliban and questioned.

“I was crying … I thought they were going to kill us all,” she said.

However, they were let go and allowed to continue on their journey. Once in Pakistan, they completed their biometrics and health requirements to enter Canada.

A month later, her group of 200 women boarded a flight to Calgary that eventually led them to Saskatoon.

“The paperwork and biometrics were hard work. It took too long. We asked if we could do our biometrics in Canada, but they did not accept this,” she said.

Masoomi says, despite all the hardship, her group got lucky. She says that she knows another group of dancers who are still in Pakistan waiting to hear back from the Canadian government about their papers.

Peter Liang, a communications advisor with the IRCC, said that Afghanistan is a country in which the government of Canada has no military or diplomatic presence and that Canada’s usual international partners are unable to provide typical logistical support and arrange travel.

“We continue to work with local authorities to resettle individuals to Canada as quickly as we can, but our ability to do so is also impacted by whether and how quickly we get exit permits and the availability of flights to Canada,” he said via email .

According to Liang, the IRCC currently has 13 open and accessible Visa Application Centers (VACs) throughout Europe, including but not limited to: Moldova, Romania, Austria and Poland.

Additional biometric capacity has been added to the Visa Application network and missions in Warsaw, as well as Vienna and Bucharest.

This is one of the reasons why it is easier for Canada to coordinate with Ukrainian nationals.

“It’s very disheartening that there are creative measures when a country is on the world stage, and there is popular support for a response to them,” said Silcoff.

“But, what happened to the people who are hiding in Kabul because they work for the Canadian government, and there is no program that’s commensurate with the realities on the ground?”

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