I am writing this as someone with a strong personal connection to Afghanistan. Some of you know this, but there are a number of readers of this blog who I do not know personally and who I assume do not know my ‘back story’. This next paragraph is mainly for them.
My eldest daughter, Captain Nichola Goddard, MSM, served in the Canadian Army and was killed in combat during operations against the Taliban in 2006. From 2011 to 2016, I had the privilege of being the Project Director for an education development initiative funded by the Government of Canada. I visited Afghanistan many times, mainly Kabul but also some of the regions, and got to know a little bit about both the country and the people.
Given that context, you will understand that I have watched recent events with shock, horror, and dismay.
After the US announced its full withdrawal from Afghanistan, I was delighted when the Government of Canada announced that it was “taking steps, effective immediately, to resettle the Afghan nationals with whom Canada had a significant and/or enduring relationship; the Government recognizes that these individuals were integral to Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan.”
That was less than four weeks ago and was excellent news for those of us who were already working to assist certain Afghans to leave their country because they were considered, solely due to their relationship with Canada, to be in danger of Taliban reprisals. These people included interpreters and others who had worked with Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, Embassy staff, and key members of non-government organization teams who worked on Canadian-funded development initiatives. Including many of my colleagues and friends.
Like many Canadians who served or worked in Afghanistan, I received e-mails from people who were looking for advice on how to escape that country. I wrote letters of support for those whom I knew personally and encouraged them to apply for the special visa.
I did so, knowing that not everyone will qualify. I understand that there must be processes in place and that some people will not meet our criteria. But I would hope that, in times of crisis such as these, we would be human enough to minimize the bureaucratic hurdles which might limit the ability of people to apply. Indeed, our goal should be to maximise the opportunities for us to provide help to those who, when we needed it, decided to help us. Isn’t that the Canadian way?
Canada, however, fell short. There was a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. Irrespective of what they were saying, our government was not following through. It showed no urgency and did not appear to be facilitating a rapid resettlement process.
In a time of great chaos, when the Taliban were taking over great swathes of the country, when western governments were deploying huge numbers of military personnel to ensure the safe evacuation of their Embassies, Afghans whose initial application to the Canadian special program was positively received were being given that good news. They were then told that they could now start an application.
This process required each applicant to complete and submit Form IMM0008– Generic Application Form for Canada. As this form only had space for 5 names, if there were more than 5 people in your family then you also had to complete Form MM0008DEP – Additional Dependants / Declaration Form for each additional family member.
They next had to complete Schedule A, a Background/Declaration Form, for themselves and all dependants 18 years old and above. It was highlighted that “Question 10 asks you to list all government positions you have held before or after retirement. Not providing information for the entire period or leaving gaps could delay your application.”
Applicants then had to complete the IMM5406 (for themselves and all individuals 18 years old or over), plus include a scan or photo of the passport or Tazkira (national identity card) for every member of the family. It was made clear that everyone needed to get their own passport.
If your application is approved, it is your responsibility to ensure you have a passport before presenting yourself to the airport at the time flights may be scheduled. If you do NOT hold a passport, local authorities will prevent you from departing Afghanistan on a flight to Canada. Please note that the Government of Canada cannot assist you in the passport application process and cannot respond to individual questions pertaining to obtaining a passport in Afghanistan.
Finally, for any de facto family members, for example relatives who lived in the household, like a grandparent or a widowed sister, the applicant had to describe how this individual was dependent upon them financially and/or emotionally and, for each de facto dependant, submit another IMM0008 as well as a Schedule A (for all individuals 18 years old or over) and an IMM5406 (for all individuals 18 years old or over), together with a scan of the passport or Tazkira for every person (if available).
Once the completed application was submitted, reviewed, and approved, successful applicants had to go for biometric assessment, and then for a COVID19 test. Once all these steps were completed, they were then to go home and wait until they got called. At that point they would be told when they could go to the airport, where they would have to exit the country using the normal passport and border control channels.
I am wondering how much more complex this process could have been made. It is a textbook example of people, in this case employees of the Government of Canada, making sure that their actions were ‘by the book’ and could not possibly be questioned. In following established procedures, they prioritized bureaucratic processes over humanitarian intervention.
It is a national disgrace.
I hope that there is a “lesson learned” from this debacle, for when something like this happens again. As it surely will. That lesson is: first extract, then evaluate.
In times where prompt and concrete action is required, those in power must focus on making that action happen, not mouth platitudes. People on the ground, in this case at the Embassy in Kabul, will be immediately authorized to take actions as they deem necessary, not wait until approved by Ottawa. Most problems are best solved by people close to the situation.
If the Government of Canada was serious about resettling those “Afghan nationals with whom Canada had a significant and/or enduring relationship”, then it should have dropped the bureaucratic barriers that hindered their prompt and speedy extraction. This should not have been not difficult. If the Government of Canada was not serious, then it should not have spread false hope. Instead, it should have thanked everyone for their service and wished them good luck in the future.
If we accept that the Government of Canada was serious about helping people, all it had to do was accept the documents which people could provide. It would have recognized that going to an internet café to download and print forms was probably not a good idea, especially for former interpreters who had been moved to safe houses for their own protection. If necessary, it could have asked applicants to provide the name and contact information of a Canadian with whom they worked and have someone from Ottawa contact that person and seek confirmation. They could have extracted people directly through the military side of Kabul airport to a waiting RCAF or chartered civilian plane. They could have worried about COVID-19 by imposing a mandatory 14-day isolation at CFB Trenton once people arrived safely in Canada.
The process of resettlement only becomes difficult when you lose trust in people and try to make the system fool-proof. When policies are focused on stopping one potential threat from entering Canada, irrespective of the impact on the many left behind. Most of the Afghans with whom I have spoken don’t really want to leave Afghanistan, but they understand the necessity to do so. They are competent, educated professionals. Most speak English as well as Pashto and Dari; many speak French as well, or Russian, or German. They deserve our support.
It is even more frustrating to recognize that this is not simply a Canadian problem. No western country is coming out of this situation with their reputations intact. It is truly an international disgrace.
In Canada, we have one small opportunity to make things happen. We have just entered into an election campaign. I would encourage all my Canadian readers to talk to all the candidates in their riding, not just those seeking re-election, and keep this abandonment of our friends and allies at the front of their minds. Yes, there has been a horrible earthquake in Haiti. Yes, there are many important domestic issues which need to be addressed. But if you seek power, you have to deal with all events, you cannot pick and choose. You also have to deal with the consequences of your actions.
In Afghanistan there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who stepped forward and worked with Canadians at a time when we needed them. Where are we now, when they need us?
A version of this blog was published in The Guardian, a local newspaper on Prince Edward Island, on 20 August 2021.