The Canadian government has quietly changed the criteria on its website for a special program for vulnerable Afghan refugees so that only those who have already managed to escape to other countries are eligible.
The online criteria for the “special humanitarian program” used to include Afghans “who are in Afghanistan or outside of Afghanistan,” but it was changed this month to apply only to those “outside of Afghanistan.”
The program is one of two set up to help bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada and is intended for vulnerable groups including women leaders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and journalists.
The online criteria for the other program, which is aimed at interpreters and others who helped Canada during its military mission as well as embassy staff, still allows those inside Afghanistan to apply.
When the government first announced the special humanitarian program in August, it said it would apply to those outside Afghanistan, but it ultimately included those stuck inside the war-torn country in its online criteria.
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The government said Monday that the change to the website was a “communications rather than a policy change.”
Alex Cohen, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said Canada would continue to do its utmost to help vulnerable Afghans inside and outside the country.
Since the Taliban seized Kabul and took control in August, it has been increasingly difficult to get people out.
Canada ended its airlift mission from Kabul near the end of August as the U.S. was completing its own withdrawal from the country. Thousands of people with permission to travel to Canada were left behind _ including Canadian citizens.
Groups working with Afghans trying to flee the country said the change to the criteria for the humanitarian program on Canada’s official website would sow confusion and desperation among Afghans hoping to come to Canada.
The website is the source of authoritative information on who is eligible and saying only those outside the country now qualify _ when until mid-October it said those in Afghanistan qualified _ could drive Afghans to resort to people smugglers, they warned.
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Stephen Watt of Northern Lights Canada, a refugee organization, said the government’s plan to bring 40,000 Afghans to Canada has been wrapped in secrecy ever since it was announced.
“There is still no clear way to apply to the program, or to discover who it is accepting or how it is operating,” he said. “This is a life and death question for many of the people we are talking to within Afghanistan.
“Our government needs to come clean about its plans for these very vulnerable people who it promised to help in the heat of the election, and provide a clear path for providing that help. This isn’t a time for empty promises and secret processes.”
Wendy Noury Long, director of the Afghan Interpreters Association, said she feared that the change, made in mid October, would drive desperate Afghans to go to extreme lengths to get out of the country so they qualify.
“People will be thinking how do I get out? Do I contact human smugglers? Countries are actively deporting people back to Afghanistan,” she said.
“This is a policy change. This is the explanation of whether you qualify. You are taking a huge risk to try to get out to another country and you might find yourself deported back to Afghanistan.”
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The humanitarian program Canada set up to help Afghans at risk has strict eligibility criteria. To qualify Afghans must also be a woman leader, a human rights advocate, a member of a persecuted religious or ethic minority, in the LGBTQ community, or a journalist or someone who has helped Canadian journalists. As of mid October, they must be located outside Afghanistan.
Those who fit these criteria need to register for refugee status with the United Nations Refugee Agency or the government where they live and wait to be referred under the program. They can also be identified as eligible by a private sponsor.
Around 3,700 Canadians and Afghan refugees, including former interpreters, were airlifted out by Canada before the end of August.
Approximately 1,700 interpreters and other Afghans with papers to come to Canada are currently in safehouses in Kabul. Some safehouses, being run by an NGO and funded by veterans and private donations, face closure within weeks because of lack of funding.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced on Friday that Canada will resettle up to 322 more Afghans who helped NATO countries.
© 2021 The Canadian Press