In August, Naik Arbabzada was thrilled when she managed to quickly put together a private group of acquaintances to sponsor her elder sister’s family to Canada from Tajikistan, where the Afghans have sought refuge.
The Edmonton group quickly raised $60,000 in cash, with one person donating $8,000 worth of dental services for her sister, brother-in-law and six children.
But then they hit a snag because the family has not been able to secure the so-called “refugee status determination” paper, a document they need from the Tajikistan government to be recognized as refugees in need of resettlement.
Without that piece of paper, Arbabzada, a medical student at the University of Alberta, said her sponsorship group can’t even put in an application.
“We are asking the federal government to treat the Afghan refugee crisis similar to the Syrian refugee crisis by waiving the requirement of the RSD, so it doesn’t hinder an applicant’s ability to put a sponsorship application forward,” said Arbabzada, 30, who resettled in Canada with her parents 20 years ago.
(Her two older sisters were left behind in Afghanistan because they were married and couldn’t come along as dependants. One is still stuck in Kabul with her family.)
Canada has committed to welcoming 40,000 Afghan refugees through its special immigration measures and humanitarian resettlement program after the Taliban took over Kabul and returned to power in August. So far only 3,500 have made it here.
Ottawa has set a target to usher in a total of 59,500 refugees in 2021 but so far only 44,300 have been admitted, according to data confirmed by the immigration department.
The goal for this year’s intake of government-assisted refugees was 12,500, and 22,500 for those privately sponsored by churches and community groups such as Arbabzada’s family. As of Oct. 31, only 7,800 and 4,500 were admitted respectively. The rest of the 44,300 admitted so far were refugees who entered Canada and were then granted asylum.
Officials said Canada’s ability to process immigration applications has been greatly hindered since the onset of COVID-19 amid office lockdowns and travel restrictions here and abroad.
This week, Ottawa confirmed it has reopened the land border to irregular migrants from the U.S., giving them access to seek asylum in Canada, which had been sending these would-be refugees back south of the border since March 2020.
“As the public health situation improves and the border reopens, Canada has removed the temporary public health measures restricting the entry of asylum claimants and the agreement with the U.S. has come to an end,” said Alex Cohen, press secretary of Immigration Minister Sean Fraser.
“Canada remains committed to upholding our fair and compassionate refugee protection system, fulfilling our domestic and international legal obligations and protecting the health and safety of Canadians and those who wish to come here.”
While it’s good news that those travel restrictions have relaxed, Arbabzada said Fraser must also remove the red tape hindering ready Canadians from bringing in Afghans in crisis.
She said her sister’s family had no plan to move to Canada until June, when they were forced into hiding and had to flee the country after her brother-in-law was threaten by the Taliban because he was a contractor providing office supplies, furniture and non-perishable food items to foreign companies in Kabul.
However, since he didn’t work for the Canadian government, the family didn’t qualify for Ottawa’s special measures to resettle here, leaving private sponsorship the only option.
“It’s a shame that Canada is unable to meet its annual refugee target when you have individuals like my sister who are going to be very well supported and are waiting to start their lives in Canada,” said Arbabzada.
Members of her sponsorship group have reached out to the immigration department, urging the government to waive the refugee card requirement for Afghans.
In an email, a senior immigration official said removing the requirement, even temporarily, would result in a greater number of applications, which affects processing times and the timely resettlement of all privately sponsored refugees.
“There is a continuing need to manage intake of these applications in order to achieve acceptable processing times,” said the letter.
The official’s response upsets Tema Frank, a member of Arbabzada’s sponsorship group.
“The government is speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” said the Edmonton writer.
“They’re trying to claim the glory for saying we’ll support all these Afghans. And yet when you’ve got Canadians who are ready to support them and make it happen, they’re putting this artificial blockade in the way.”
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