Afghan researcher pleads for change to Canada's humanitarian refugee program

The Government of Canada’s humanitarian refugee program for Afghans requires applicants to apply from outside Afghanistan. An Afghan researcher in Regina wants to see Canada change that rule.

Zohra Bahrami, a student and researcher at the University of Regina, has family in Afghanistan. She said their efforts to get to safety in Canada are being impeded by the rule.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the resettlement of approximately 20,000 vulnerable Afghan nationals will be done through two programs; first through a special immigration program targeting Afghans who assisted the Government of Canada and their families; and a special humanitarian program.

According to the IRCC, the program focuses on resettling Afghan women leaders, human rights advocates, LGBTI individuals, journalists and those who assisted Canadian journalists, persecuted religious minorities, immediate family members of individuals in Canada and extended family members of previously resettled interpreters. These individuals must have already fled Afghanistan for a nearby country to apply to the IRCC’s program.

Bahrami is thankful Canada was one of the first countries to create a humanitarian refugee program for Afghans, but said a program targeted at vulnerable Afghans doesn’t work if those in need cannot qualify from within Afghanistan.

She said her parents and siblings qualify but still cannot get the help they need.

Bahrami said the IRCC told her that her mother didn’t hear back because she is still in Afghanistan, but her brother who applied from outside the country still hasn’t heard back.

“It breaks my heart that she’s losing that one bit of hope that she had, but I’m not going to give up,” said Bahrami.

She has been emailing government officials and researching other programs to find a way to get her family to safety.

“It’s not just about my family, there are thousands of people including U.S. and Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have to be hidden because that’s the only choice they have,” Bahrami said.

As a researcher at the International Studies department, she is concerned about the negative outcomes the current layout of the program could have.

“We have to understand for us it’s just a day, but for people in Afghanistan who are hiding right now a day feels like a century,” Bahrami said.

She said some people are leaving the country, but are doing so illegally risking their lives and deportation, with nowhere to go.

“Everybody who wants to be on this program would try to get out of Afghanistan and this program is only for 20,000 people,” said Bahrami.

She said there is a potential for hundreds of thousands to attempt to leave the country to become eligible.

“If they don’t qualify and then they live in another country they would face homelessness, poverty, and the biggest one, this would lead to mass migration.”

Afghanistan’s neighbours are currently not allowing Afghan refugees in, with Pakistan even preventing them from renting hotel rooms in the country.

“Imagine going to another country not having any relatives or friends to stay with, not being able to book a hotel room. What do you do? You just live on the street for how long?” she said.

Bahrami said these migrants will likely end up back in Afghanistan forced to live under the regime they originally fled. She is pleading to the Government of Canada to remove the specific out of the country rule on this particular program.

“I get it, in order for someone to be eligible as a refugee they do have to be outside of their own country, but this is not ordinary times, these are extraordinary times and nothing is the same as the regular refugee programs,” said Bahrami.

She thinks removing this parameter would prevent mass migration and stop similar chaos like what occurred at the Kabul Airport. Bahrami's mother is wary of finding a way out of the country in fear of being rejected by the program and not hearing back.

“Afghans who are one globe under these programs may apply to immigrate to Canada through existing provisions under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, such as the economic or family class,” IRCC said in a statement to CTV News.

Canada’s private sponsorship program only allows sponsorship of spouses and kids, which doesn’t fit the scenario Bahrami is in, and the regular program takes several years.

“I’m feeling as hopeless and as helpless as my parents and siblings are feeling over there on the other side of the world.”