Ottawa is issuing single-journey travel documents to thousands of Afghans who have been approved for resettlement in Canada and is urging them to get to Pakistan, which has relaxed its border restrictions so they can stay there temporarily until they are able to catch flights out.
Vincent Hughes, communications director for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, confirmed that Canada has begun issuing the temporary travel documents, which recipients can use in place of passports. The move creates an escape opportunity for Afghans who would previously have been unable to leave their home country because they lacked proper documentation.
“We are communicating with our clients who remain in Afghanistan, informing them that we can help facilitate travel to Pakistan,” Mr. Hughes said.
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Canadian organizations working to help Afghans escape Afghanistan’s Taliban regime had long urged Ottawa to issue such temporary travel documents. Those humanitarian groups have said for months that bureaucratic hurdles, particularly problems with obtaining Afghan passports, have prevented would-be refugees from reaching safety.
Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, has become an important waystation on many Afghans’ journeys to Canada, because it’s a relatively safe country where they can undergo the Canadian government’s required biometric and medical screenings and then catch international flights without interference. Pakistan previously required Afghans to have visas and passports before they could cross its border. Without those documents, they could not travel onward to Canada.
But now Pakistan, like Canada, has temporarily eased its document requirements. According to Hamid Raza Khan, a spokesperson at the Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa, Afghans will be given visas upon arrival in Pakistan that will allow them to stay in the country for 30 days.
“They will be able to continue their journey to whichever country has processed their immigration,” he said, adding that Afghans bound for Canada will receive biometric and medical screening before they are put on flights.
He noted that Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, discussed Pakistan’s new policy with Canadian High Commissioner Wendy Gilmour earlier this week.
Officials from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) have sent out e-mails to Afghans who have been approved to come Canada, telling them to get to Pakistan as soon as possible.
The immigration department is advising them to make their way to Pakistan either on their own or with help from two Canadians veterans’ groups that are running rescue operations on the ground: Veterans Transition Network and Aman Lara.
Brian Macdonald, the executive of director of Aman Lara, said his organization is anticipating a dramatic increase in requests for help getting to Pakistan now that Ottawa has finally bowed to pressure to issue single-journey travel documents.
“We have already had more than 50 people contact us since the government’s decision. But we expect that number to increase dramatically,” he said. “Our best month was 500 people, so we’d like to double that for a couple of months if we could.”
Mr. Macdonald said there are thousands of Afghans who worked for Canada’s military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, but who have not been able to leave the country because they do not have proper travel documents. Hundreds more escaped to Pakistan and are now unable to leave, he said.
“We have identified about 600 people in Pakistan who are underdocumented. Maybe their passport expired or maybe they crossed into Pakistan without official documents,” he added.
Mr. Macdonald said the decision to issue single-journey travel documents will save many lives. He urged Afghans who receive notices from IRCC to contact his organization immediately so it can move them safely out of Afghanistan.
“This is an opportunity to get thousands of people out of Afghanistan who have been recognized by the Canadian government system but don’t have the documentation to get through the other governmental hurdles,” he said.
Oliver Thorne, the executive director of Veterans Transition Network, said his organization is excited about the opportunity to bring more eligible Afghans to Canada. “This border facilitation is the realization of what VTN, veterans, and countless other advocates have campaigned for since the last Canadian plane left [Afghanistan] in August 2021,” he said in a statement.
Opposition MPs, including Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, have also called for the Liberal government to issue single-journey travel documents to Afghans.
This past July, Canada introduced a special immigration program for Afghans who assisted with the country’s military and diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. Although Ottawa’s temporary travel documents will help those approved for resettlement under that program, many who thought they would qualify sent e-mails to IRCC in August and were never invited to make formal applications.
The Globe reported on Monday that 200 Afghans who worked on Canadian-funded aid projects are being actively hunted by the Taliban, which has accused them of being spies for Canada.
Two women who spoke to The Globe said the Taliban had arrested one of their colleagues and taken his cellphone. On the phone, the militants found messages from a WhatsApp group made up mostly of women who worked on the aid projects. In the messages, the women criticized the Taliban and spoke about the difficulty of getting Ottawa to grant them special visas.
The Globe is not naming the women because they fear for their safety. They are calling on Canada to urgently approve them for resettlement so they can travel to Pakistan.
Dozens of former employees of Canada’s embassy in Kabul have recently also told The Globe they have heard nothing from IRCC.
The Immigration Minister’s office said recently in a statement that IRCC has received referrals from the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada for the remaining spaces in the special immigration program. But the office said it had not yet issued invitations to apply to all of the Afghans who were selected.
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