It’s time for our government to stop outsourcing the protection of Afghans at risk

November 4, 2021
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This column is an opinion from Corey Levine, a human rights and peacebuilding consultant, researcher and writer. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

When the news leaked out last week that a group of safe houses currently home to more than 1,800 Afghans at risk would be closing on Nov. 5, I was also impacted, despite living comfortably in my own home, halfway around the world from those stranded in hideouts in Kabul. 

This is because I personally know some of the people in these shelters, which have been running for the past couple of months due to the private generosity of Canadians. 

For others, I have helped facilitate access to sanctuary, although I have no personal connection to them. (Having returned from seven months in Afghanistan a few weeks before Kabul fell in mid-August, I began to assist friends and former colleagues in their attempts to leave the country and soon found myself in the position of full-time crisis manager – the need was so great.)  

Until I helped get them into safe housing they were having to change their location every day or so in fear for their lives. Now they are again facing the same situation. This includes a female rank-and-file government employee who, by the very fact of being a woman in a visible job traditionally held by men, finds herself directly in the crosshairs of the country’s new leaders. 

Heart-wrenching pain

Not only did “Marzia” have to flee the Taliban when her city fell, but her abusive husband, emboldened by the Taliban’s oppressive stance on women, forced her to leave her children behind at the same time.

I am in almost daily contact, trying to find a longer-term solution for Marzia, whose name I have changed because of fears for her safety and the safety of her children. I admit it can be challenging because of her overwhelming grief over her situation. Her pain is heart-wrenching.

Then there are several others who are still on the run because I have been unsuccessful at finding safe housing for them – their mobiles switched off, with only an occasional email to let me know they are still in desperate need of assistance. This list includes a prominent woman politician, a human rights advocate from the minority Hazara community, and several journalists, along with their families. 

Marzia and the others fit squarely within the parameters of the federal government’s special humanitarian program to assist up to 40,000 “vulnerable Afghans in need of resettlement, including women leaders, human rights defenders and persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.”

Afghan refugees are shown in an Italian Red Cross camp in Avezzano, Italy, in late August. Many of Canada’s allies have effectively closed their doors to Afghan refugees, writes Corey Levine. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

While I applaud Canada’s commitment to assist thousands of Afghans at risk, my question to the new minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship is why am I, and hundreds of other Canadians like me, along with dozens of organizations around the world, left holding the bag to save these people’s lives?

One positive benefit that has come out of the current Afghan crisis is that I have made connections to several wonderful individuals and networks across the globe, who have put families and jobs on hold in their desire to help stem this tidal wave of human misery.

All of us are collectively scratching our heads wondering why our respective governments have, in effect, “outsourced” their commitments to protect, evacuate and resettle Afghans at risk to civil society and to the private sector.    

As the new minister settles into his role in the coming days and weeks, I urge him to implement policies that will address the pressing needs of Afghans at risk and uphold our commitments to them.

Our government needs to immediately develop a plan and assign the necessary human and financial resources to enable the rapid evacuation of those who are eligible.

Durable solutions needed

It is actually a cheaper alternative to evacuate those at risk and temporarily house them in a third country while their paperwork is finalized. This would necessitate agreements with other countries, but the groundwork has already been laid in countries such as Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, where thousands of vulnerable Afghans have already been relocated while waiting for their cases to be processed.

But this is only a stop-gap measure. More durable solutions need to be found. 

Canada needs to urge its NATO and other allies who committed billions to Afghanistan over the past 20 years to do more. Many of them have effectively closed their doors to Afghan refugees.  Others, like the U.S., are outsourcing their applicants to other countries, including Canada. But more than this, Canada needs to recognize the Afghan crisis as a prima facie refugee situation.

This means making the process for applying for Canadian visas easier as well as developing expanded pathways to resettlement in Canada. This could include setting up a temporary residence program for those hoping to return when it’s safe to do so, creating special scholarships, facilitating employment visas, and other options that would expedite the application process for at-risk Afghans. 

Tomorrow is the deadline for the safe houses closing. I hope our government will make this issue their first priority — for “Marzia” and the thousands of Afghans like her, stuck in Kabul, their lives on the line, with no way out.


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