OTTAWA — The federal government needs to do more to help thousands of Afghans who assisted Canadian Forces but remain trapped in Afghanistan a year after the Taliban seized Kabul, aid groups and opposition parties say.
As the grim anniversary passed Monday, NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan warned at a news conference that Canada will have blood on its hands if it does not take immediate action to help Afghans whose lives are in danger because they helped Canadians.
She called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene to sort out "chaos" at the Immigration Department, which she said has still not processed many applications to come to Canada.
"No more excuses," Kwan said. "We do not want to lose lives because if we do the blood is on the Canadian government's hands."
Aman Lara, a Canadian non-profit working on the ground in Afghanistan to help people leave the country, said 8,000 Afghans approved to come to Canada have not yet been able to escape. Many do not have a passport or visa and applying to the Taliban for documents could put them in danger.
Another 3,000 Afghans who helped the Canadian Armed Forces and government have not been approved to come to Canada, according to Aman Lara executive director Brian Macdonald.
Kwan said 100 security guards at Canada's Afghan Embassy, and a senior Afghan interpreter who received a certificate of appreciation for his service to Canada, are among those stranded.
An interpreter, identified only as "Mr. X" to avoid retaliation from the Taliban, told reporters at the news conference that he escaped to Pakistan but had to leave his family behind. He begged for help, saying the Taliban had issued a warrant for his arrest.
"This is a matter of life and death," he said, speaking virtually from Pakistan.
Kwan said one Afghan she has been in touch with about his application to come to Canada is now missing.
Wadood Dilsoz, founder of a group called Afghan Community Vancouver, said former embassy security guards have told him the Canadians promised them help but left them behind.
He said "their families and children are suffering every single moment" and are in fear of being killed or tortured."
"I believe that it is our moral obligation to help those who helped us," he added.
The NDP, Tories and Aman Lara urged Canada to extend the special immigration program for Afghans. It was set up to settle 18,000 former local employees of the Canadian Armed Forces or government, but is being wound down after reaching capacity.
"We are asking the government of Canada to keep the special immigration program open and unlimited in numbers until everybody who helped Canada gets out," Macdonald said.
Canada reached an agreement with Pakistan in June to allow Afghans without full identity documents to fly to Canada from Pakistan for 60 days. Macdonald wants Canada to negotiate to keep that window open until all Afghans approved to come to Canada are able to get here.
Official figures show Canada's resettlement efforts have lagged behind federal targets and efforts to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Canada promised to resettle 40,000 Afghans, and in the last year 17,300 arrived. Since January, some 71,800 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion in their country landed in Canada.
Fraser predicted in December that it could take two years to fulfil the government's promise to bring 40,000 Afghans to Canada.
Kwan said there is a "stark difference" between the government's treatment of those fleeing the Taliban and those escaping the Russian invasion.
Vincent Hughes, a spokesman for Fraser, said the Afghan and Ukrainian immigration programs are very different but that Canada's commitment to bringing at least 40,000 vulnerable Afghans to Canada "has not wavered."
He said Afghan refugees who arrive through programs set up to bring them to Canada have a right to stay permanently, whereas it's believed many Ukrainians intend eventually to return to Ukraine.
Helping get people out of Afghanistan and to Canada was very challenging, he added, as Canada has no diplomatic presence there and does not recognize the Taliban government.
In a joint statement on Sunday, Canada’s ministers of foreign affairs, immigration, international development and national defence said "we have witnessed the hardships endured by the Afghan people, with some having undergone harrowing journeys to flee the country and countless others living in fear of persecution and retribution."
“Faced with a heart-wrenching situation in Afghanistan, Canadians opened their hearts to help people rebuild their lives and more than 17,300 Afghans have arrived in Canada over the past year," they said.
Conservative critics Jasraj Singh Hallan and Pierre Paul-Hus echoed calls to extend the special immigration program.
In a statement, they said Afghans' applications to immigration programs have been lost among "endless backlogs".
"Many applicants have only ever received auto-replies, while countless others have never even received a response," they said. “It is shameful the Canadian government would treat Afghans who stood by our country like this while the Taliban hunts them for their service."
Macdonald said the exodus to Canada is taking so long Aman Lara could no longer afford to keep open the safe houses it set up for Afghan interpreters, their families and others who helped Canada.
Meanwhile, aid agencies working in Afghanistan are raising alarms that the country is in a dire humanitarian crisis, with 18.9 million people facing acute hunger.
Asuntha Charles, national director of World Vision Afghanistan, said aid workers have encountered acute poverty and malnutrition, including among children.
Reyhana Patel of Islamic Relief Canada said some families were facing a choice between marrying off their young daughters or seeing them starve to death.
Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada, who has no contact with the Taliban regime, said "the experience of the past year in Afghanistan has been very painful and disturbing."
Hassan Soroosh said the Taliban had swiftly reintroduced "repressive policies" including restrictions "on almost every aspect of girls' and women's lives and rights."
"The Taliban’s forced takeover has caused a huge disruption to constitutional order, socio-economic development, public services and civil society activities," he said.
The ambassador called for the international community to take a unified approach toward the Taliban and put greater pressure on them "as they continue to insist on their uncompromising approach and repressive rule."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press