Reality Check: Putting Canada’s Response to Afghan Refugees in Perspective

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Few issues in recent memory have been subject to as much misinformation and failure to communicate as Canada’s record in accepting Afghan refugees. This is saying quite a lot, given how many public policy issues currently are labouring under a cloud of ignorance and sometimes deliberate misdirection.

The Afghan hopefuls have clearly captured the attention of the media. Since the Taliban’s sudden and unexpected takeover of the country in August 2021, rarely a week has gone by without at least one article highlighting the plight of specific individuals trapped in that country but wishing to come to Canada. Fair enough, perhaps, but many scribes do not leave it there. Instead they seem bound and determined to ignore reality and place the blame for the whole situation squarely on the federal government. Barely ten months after this story began, ordinary Canadians could be forgiven if they have the impression the refugee crisis has gone on for years, and that their government has done little or nothing to remedy it.

Take, for example, the number 40,000. Almost everyone is now familiar with that figure because it is repeated in every article, along with an accompanying phrase noting that this is how many Afghans the Trudeau government has pledged to bring to Canada. The next sentence will invariably note that only a few thousand have arrived here so far. This in turn will be followed by a rant about the incompetence and rigid inflexibility of the faceless bureaucrats in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), and the bad faith/empty promises of the Liberal government. Finally, there will be a claim that if only the government were to do one thing – insert here one of several ideas that have been floated by critics over time – all of this could be remedied, and in fact could have been resolved much sooner. In many cases, there will also be a codicil suggesting discrimination is playing a part in Canada’s allegedly lackadaisical settlement efforts on the Afghanistan file in comparison, notably, with the Ukraine. [i]

Where to begin to set the record straight? First of all, the reality is that this figure of 40,000 was always an aspirational target, in the same way that 25,000 Syrians was a ballpark figure announced by the Liberals back in 2015. Certainly it was never meant to be seen as the actual number of Afghans who once worked for the Canadian Forces and diplomats stationed there, and who therefore might need to be rescued from Taliban retribution. Moreover, the second half of the Liberal government’s commitment – which is almost never mentioned in these articles — was to try and settle that number in Canada by 2023, that is in two years not a few months.  

From the beginning the government also was clear about eligibility criteria. It quickly set up three possible streams of refugee claimants in its newly created Afghan refugee program. Together they might possibly add up to the total of 40,000 but there was no way to know in advance. Still, as of June 22, 2022 some 16,270 Afghans, or nearly half of that goal, had already arrived in the country.     

As the publicly available and well laid-out website of IRCC clearly states, the three categories of potential refugee claims for Afghans, and the number of individuals expected in each, are:

(1)  Those who assisted Canadian Forces and diplomats in Afghanistan (such as interpreters, guards or drivers) and their immediate families.  

It was estimated that up to 18,000 individuals could be eligible under this stream. In reality, as of June 22, 2022 some 14,960 individuals have applied. Of these, 10,740 have been approved, and 7,165 have already arrived in Canada.

(2) A stream providing a pathway to permanent residency for extended families of interpreters, guards, etc.

Here a target of 5,000 was established.  Note that this is the most difficult category to process, since many of the individuals eligible in the first category are not willing to come to Canada until their extended family members, previously unknown to the government and often totalling 11 or 12 individuals, have also been approved. 

(3) A stream for humanitarian considerations. This includes women’s rights leaders, human rights leaders, persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ community and journalists, all of whom have been targets of Taliban retribution.

This category involves private sector charities and humanitarian organizations, to whom individuals apply rather than to the government. One of the criteria for this stream is that the applicants must already be outside of Afghanistan. To date some 9,105 individuals have arrived in Canada under this category. 

It is hardly surprising that more individuals have been able to take advantage of this third stream, primarily because they had already managed to leave Afghanistan. Conversely, many if not most of the individual examples highlighted in critical media articles involve people who are still trapped in that country. As IRCC Minister Sean Fraser has repeatedly noted, this scenario presents “extraordinary challenges that don’t exist in other refugee settlement programs.” [ii]

Put another way, there is no “safe passage” out of Afghanistan, only a few risky options which not everyone could even attempt. This is particularly true when one considers that the most likely destination for escape is Pakistan, a country which has been openly hostile to receiving more Afghan refugees. It has constructed a Trump-like fence along 90% of its border with Afghanistan and its official crossing checkpoints are heavily armed. Those Afghans attempting to cross legally at such checkpoints must be in possession of a valid passport, but most potential refugees do not possess one and dare not request it from the Taliban government. While it is still possible for the intrepid individual to enter Pakistan illegally because of the extent of wilderness along the border, this is a pyrrhic victory for many as the Pakistani government refuses to recognize them as refugees despite UNHCR requests, and they are deprived of any assistance. [iii]

In this context, it is important to address the critics’ oft-repeated argument that the Canadian government should simply have issued special one-time travel visas to Afghans trying to leave the country. In reality this “solution” would immediately have run up against two major problems: the first reality, that it was almost impossible for most of them to manage to escape, and the second, that they would have been confronted by implacable Pakistani resistance if they should actually reach the border. As a result, when a press release by the Minister on June 22, 2022 suddenly announced that the Canadian government would now begin to issue such special travel passes, careful observers should also have noted that the Pakistani government simultaneously announced it would accept them, a development which surely is suggestive of successful behind-the-scenes negotiations.[iv] Even so, whether this will result in a sudden mass exodus of many of those trapped in the country since the Taliban takeover remains to be seen.       

Meanwhile, from a comparative perspective the argument that the Liberal government is giving preferential treatment to refugees from the Ukraine is clearly without substance. The two situations are so dissimilar that it hardly seems necessary to formally refute this charge. For one thing, most Ukrainians wishing to leave Ukraine can easily do so. For another, they have many possible destination countries for the first stage of their journey, all of which have been welcoming and prepared to assist them in their travels onward to Canada if they choose. Moreover Canada has resources on the ground in most of those countries, including embassy staff and immigration officers. Finally, the vast majority of those arriving from Ukraine are women and children, consisting of small groups of 2 or 3, most of whom plan to return to their native country when it becomes possible. Conversely the vast majority of Afghan refugees are young men, many with extended families, who expect to make Canada their permanent home.  Clearly such vastly different situations require different eligibility criteria and processes.

It is also important to note that IRCC officials have been confronted with both the Afghan and Ukraine crises in the space of a few months. This has meant setting up two new programs reflecting two entirely different situations, at the same time that these same officials must continue to administer ongoing programs involving many asylum-seekers from Asia and Africa.  (In fact there have been other articles accusing the government of ‘forgetting’ the situation of asylum-seekers in South Sudan and Myanmar in favor of Afghanistan and Ukraine.)

The addition of two such unanticipated and prominent new programs inevitably has placed considerable strain on existing resources. One official noted the department had received over a million queries from Afghans since August 2021. Given that this has all taken place in the midst of a global pandemic — which saw most public servants obliged to work from home, and the department forced to pivot to a virtual operation — some would argue the administrative response has been remarkably prompt and coherent. There is a finite limit to how “nimble” a bureaucracy can be, particularly when safety and security are at stake. 

Finally, those criticizing the current government’s handling of this extraordinary refugee crisis should consider the historical perspective. This government successfully settled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees, and is now working hard to facilitate the arrival of both Ukrainian and Afghan refugees. Contrast this with the example of its predecessor, the Harper Conservative government, which responded to the arrival of a mere 400-odd Tamil asylum-seekers on Canada’s west coast by placing them in detention centres for many months, while Immigration Minister Jason Kenney repeatedly denounced them as terrorists. Mr. Kenney was also the minister who “solved” the backlog of immigrant applications, reducing it by almost 40% by arbitrarily eliminating some 280,000 existing files. And then of course there was the Conservatives’ 2015 election proposal to ban “barbaric cultural practices” and introduce a tip line for so-called ‘bogus’ refugees already in Canada, while ignoring genuine Syrian asylum-seekers who were drowning off the coast of Europe.  

In short, while there will always be room for improvement in any government program, and the government’s response to the Afghan crisis may not have been as swift or aggressive as some may have wished, its actions do not support accusations of incompetence, lack of commitment or bias. It will be interesting to observe the total number of Afghans who do finally arrive in Canada by 2023 as per the government’s stated agenda. In addition, and on a more positive note, the robust demand for asylum in these two cases reinforces the reality that Canada remains a destination of choice for victims of oppression around the globe.

[i] See for example the recent over-the-top article by Erica Ifill, “Liberals On Collision Course to Entrench Anti-Blackness” Hill Times, June 22, 2022.

[ii] M. Carbert. “Canada Committed to 40,000 Afghan Refugees. So Why Are Thousands Still Stuck Overseas?” Globe and Mail. April 15, 2022.


[iv] J. Dickson and R. Fife. “Ottawa Issuing Documents to Allow Afghans Entry Through Pakistan” Globe and Mail. June 23, 2022.