Good evening, everyone. I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 10 of the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan, created pursuant to the order of the House of December 8, 2021.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of November 25, 2021. I would like to remind all those present in the room to please follow the recommendations from public health authorities as well as the directive of the Board of Internal Economy of October 19, 2021, to remain healthy and safe.
Should any technical challenges arise, please advise me as we may need to suspend for a few minutes to ensure all members are able to participate fully.
Before I introduce our witnesses this evening, I want to flag some scheduling changes for the honourable members. I have been informed that is available to appear on May 2. However, we were scheduled to hear from witnesses in the first hour and another panel of interpreters in the second hour. I propose that we accommodate the minister and Global Affairs Canada officials for the full two hours next week and reschedule the panel of witnesses to appear on May 16.
As we are quickly running out of time before we must submit our report to the House of Commons, we could ask the interpreters to submit a brief. As we have already heard from other interpreters and we got a brief from the other interpreters, I would suggest that the interpreters that were supposed to appear submit a brief to the committee. As you know, time is of the essence. We have to proceed with drafting instructions for the second half of the meeting that we are scheduling on May 16, and then consider the report on May 30 and June 6. Unfortunately, I'm told there is no possibility to add any time to any of our upcoming meetings.
If everyone is in agreement, then we will proceed with these changes in the schedule, and then I can introduce the witnesses.
I can see hands up. There are no objections, so thank you. The clerk will modify the schedule accordingly.
Now I would like to welcome the Honourable Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. I have experience on another committee as well, and the minister has been very accessible.
Minister, I want to welcome you.
With the minister today we have Catrina Tapley, deputy minister; Jennifer MacIntyre, assistant deputy minister, Afghanistan; and Nicole Giles, assistant deputy minister, operations.
Minister, you are joining us for a full two hours today. Thank you to you and your officials. You have 10 minutes for your opening remarks. Please proceed.
Thank you, members, for the opportunity to address this committee on the government's effort to resettle Afghan refugees.
Thank you for inviting me today.
As you know, following the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan last summer, the government initially committed to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Afghan refugees. That commitment has now been increased to bringing at least 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada as part of this effort.
I'm proud to say that we've welcomed over 11,500 Afghans to Canada, with more flights arriving every week.
Just last Thursday, over 330 Afghans who supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan arrived on a chartered flight from Pakistan to Calgary, with two more charters arriving this week with both privately sponsored and government-assisted refugees on board.
There are several distinct and specialized pathways that we implemented as part of this effort to resettle Afghan refugees. This, coupled with the unprecedented logistical obstacles and the dire situation on the ground in Afghanistan, has created very serious challenges to the program. That's why I'm pleased to be here today to answer any questions you may have.
I did agree to stay for the full two hours. I am supposed to be somewhere at 8:30, but perhaps we can stretch that. I'll leave it to you, Mr. Chair, to determine the logistics of the committee, given the motion that you've just adopted as well, but I am pleased to be here so that I can provide answers to some of your questions and whatever additional information and clarity I am able to.
I sincerely look forward to receiving recommendations from this committee's report to see what we can continue to do to support vulnerable Afghans.
Our programs include the special immigration measures for Afghan nationals, who, like those that arrived in Calgary last week, directly assisted the Government of Canada as part of our mission in Afghanistan.
As part of our commitment to resettle over 40,000 Afghan refugees, we plan to welcome approximately 18,000 individuals and families who had a direct, significant and enduring relationship with Canada through their work with the Department of National Defence or Global Affairs Canada.
We've implemented a special stream that is aimed at resettling 5,000 extended family members of interpreters who were already living in Canada and who were not included when family members were resettled in 2009 and 2012. We also implemented a separate humanitarian stream to welcome even more Afghan refugees based on certain particular vulnerabilities, including women leaders, LGBTQ2+ individuals, human rights defenders, journalists and members of religious and ethnic minorities.
As with our standard refugee programs, the humanitarian stream works through a referral system. Individuals don't apply directly to the program. Instead, individuals are referred by designated partners that are trained and experienced in assessing vulnerability and operating in situations of mass displacement and humanitarian hardship. Referral partners include organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Front Line Defenders, ProtectDefenders.eu and Canadian private sponsors.
In light of the current situation in Afghanistan, and as an exceptional measure, we're waiving the requirement for refugee status determination for some private sponsorship applications, which broadens sponsor access to the program.
This is one of the ways we're continuing to work with the thousands of Canadians across the country who want to help any way they can.
In addition to all these special pathways, we're going to work with partners to use the economic mobility pathways pilot as well. This is an innovative program designed to help skilled refugees resettle in Canada, so we can welcome even more Afghan refugees.
By using our network of migration offices and implementing flexible approaches where possible, we've streamlined applications from Afghanistan to process cases as quickly as we can.
In every scenario, we're identifying and implementing creative solutions wherever we can find them. This includes measures like waiving certain standard requirements, expanding eligibility for certain prearrival supports, providing dedicated communication channels, delivering new e-application intake tools, undertaking biometrics collection trips and mobilizing significant resources.
By far, the biggest challenge is that many of the individuals selected under this special immigration program are still in Afghanistan. I need not remind members of this committee, amongst any parliamentarians, that this is territory that has been seized by the Taliban—a terrorist entity under Canadian law—and the Government of Canada has no military or diplomatic presence there. Our usual international partners are not able to provide the typical logistical support or arrange for travel in the ways you might see through a centrally managed effort that has a large presence with the UNHCR, for example.
Millions of Afghan refugees have fled Afghanistan. If we want to bring any 40,000 Afghan refugees who are already in third countries, I don't question that we would be able to deliver on that commitment more quickly. However—and this is an important element of this effort to me—we made a commitment to certain individuals and their families on the basis of their work with Canada. We don't plan to waver on that commitment, even if it means doing the harder thing, which is to continue to pursue all avenues to get them to Canada, despite the fact that they might still be in Afghanistan.
We're doing everything we can and innovating new ways to help Afghans inside and outside Afghanistan, including working with NGOs and engaging with other governments.
We're going to continue working to secure safe passage for those in Afghanistan, so they can travel to a safe third country, which allows us to complete application processing and facilitate onward travel to Canada.
We're working with partners in the region—whether they're our allies, other state partners, international organizations or non-profit organizations—so that we can identify a path forward. For example, we've been partnering with the veterans-led organization Aman Lara, which is helping evacuate individuals from conflict zones. They've assisted in the safe passage of now thousands of Afghan refugees who were destined for Canada.
The biggest hurdle from this mission, from my point of view and since I've been appointed as the minister responsible for this portfolio, is not the processing capacity of the Government of Canada, but the situational and environmental factors on the ground in Afghanistan. We share a lot of these challenges with other like-minded partners. We're not alone in the obstacles that we're facing.
It's important to put Canada's commitment to Afghan refugees in a global context. Unlike other partner countries in the region and some of our allies, we didn't have an established military presence in the months and years prior to the fall of Kabul, yet we have one of the largest commitments and efforts dedicated to resettling Afghan refugees. On a per capita basis, our goal of bringing at least 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada places us among the top countries in the world when it comes to resettlement. In terms of raw numbers, we would be second only to the United States, which benefited from having a large military presence with logistical support that allowed them to evacuate a significantly larger number of people than all other nations. However, on a per capita basis, there's no question that ours is the most substantial refugee resettlement effort from Afghanistan globally right now.
I look at some of the other commitments that our partners have made. Again, in terms of raw numbers, a commitment of 40,000 is larger than that of the United Kingdom or Australia. It's the same commitment that's being pursued by the entirety of the European Union, more or less, which has 10 times our population.
We have a long-standing and proud tradition of welcoming the world's most vulnerable, and we'll continue working hard to bring people to Canada as quickly and safely as possible.
Since the fall of Kabul, IRCC has received over a million communications from those who have expressed interest in coming to Canada. Evidently, it's a far larger number than we could manage to bring to our country. Canada's going to continue to work with partners to provide crucial humanitarian aid to those who need it the most in order to support the people of Afghanistan in the years to come. We will be providing a new home to more than 40,000 Afghan refugees.
I know this is going to be incredibly hard news for a lot of vulnerable people, but the really hard reality is that not everyone who has expressed interest in coming to Canada is going to be part of this program. When you're dealing with more than a million requests—not all of them are formal applications—it's a really difficult thing, when you're trying to understand how we can do more to support vulnerable people but know that there are vulnerable people who will not be part of the effort. In the global context, again, with a hundred million displaced persons around the world, it's not feasible to resettle everyone who's vulnerable globally. This makes it a particularly challenging exercise.
As we've said, our priority is those who have directly supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan, families of interpreters and other Afghans from groups who are being targeted by the Taliban. I know that many have been waiting for a response from the Government of Canada regarding their eligibility under the special immigration measures stream. Over the next few weeks, we'll be communicating directly with hundreds of additional individuals who are newly eligible for the program, as well as many of those who are not going to be eligible at this time.
And let me be clear—we've been working hard to bring those who are already approved under this program to Canada, and more flights are arriving across the country every week. This is in spite of the severe operational challenges we and our allies are facing on the ground.
We also need to make sure that we support Afghans upon their arrival in Canada. Making this broad-reaching initiative a success will continue to require collaboration across the government, as well as with provinces and territories, resettlement and settlement services providers, private sponsors, francophone minority communities, other stakeholders and all Canadians.
We also established the national Afghan steering committee last August, which is led by Fariborz Birjandian. He's a former refugee and the executive director of one of the largest and most successful settlement agencies in Canada: the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
The steering committee is coordinating volunteers and donations on behalf of all resettlement assistance providers across Canada that are welcoming Afghan refugees into their communities.
It's sometimes easy to get lost in the numbers and forget the human element of this story.
More than 11,500 Afghans have already arrived in Canada. That's over 11,500 lives that have—
You'd think after seven years of learning that we would know how to work these things.
Thank you for the question. The challenges are extraordinary, and we've been over that. One of the things that I think is really important is.... We sometimes lose the human stories behind some of these cases, when we talk about the numbers and the process. The treatment of women and girls by the Taliban is horrific.
I'll give you an honourable mention here, Ms. Damoff, for your work on the status of women committee during our first two and a half years here together. You've been a stalwart champion for women and girls since the moment that we've ever met.
There's one particular instance that has stuck with me that I just can't shake. There was a young 10-year old girl who was on her way, trying to come to Canada, and who had already been through a huge part of the process. She was killed at a checkpoint by the Taliban. We don't know with certainty whether that particular person was targeted. This is the same group who is now even removing Canadian citizens from an airplane because they were travelling alone.
If there's one comfort I take from our presence in Afghanistan, it's that there's an entire generation of girls who benefited from an education and whose lives will hopefully be changed.
Some of the things that we're doing in particular on this mission to help women and girls.... I'm sorry. I'm distracted in my own mind over that case. If you look at the eligibility criteria for the humanitarian stream, there's a huge focus on supporting those who are vulnerable because they're women. Sometimes it's just the fact that they were women leaders. Sometimes it's the fact that they were women leaders who were changing the society in a way that wasn't convenient for Taliban operatives. It's no coincidence that we were targeting women parliamentarians and judges. It's not because we like parliamentarians and judges as much as we might. It's because they were adopting laws that were promoting gender equality, or as judges, putting people in jail who violated principles that we believe in.
We also work with organizations that have an expertise in identifying people based on either vulnerability or the criteria we set out, including somebody's work as a human rights defender. Canada was the first country in the world to establish such a stream, and it's something we collectively can be proud of by trying to work with groups on the ground who can identify people on the basis of their vulnerability, including people who are vulnerable because they're women.
I think it's a strength of this particular program, but I'll rest a lot easier when I see that we've achieved our goal to get more of those women here to Canada.
Before I do, I want to offer a response because I think this is an important thing for people to understand about this particular conflict. Every refugee initiative that we've launched has a similar security screening process. One thing that my eyes have been opened to is that it's really challenging to respond to a crisis for a refugee purpose in real time as it unfolds.
If you look at Syria, we were dealing with hundreds of thousands of people who had fled, starting three years earlier. The groups that we were pulling people to Canada from were in camps in Lebanon and Jordan and had already been processed by the UNHCR. To deal with people as a conflict emerges and still apply a rigorous security screening process is a whole new level of difficult that I don't think we've dealt with—certainly not in my lifetime.
To Mr. Baker's question, my honestly held belief is that Canada is the best in the world when it comes to resettling people for humanitarian purposes. If I go back to the middle of the pandemic.... I was with the High Commissioner for the UNHCR just a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. He made the point to anyone who would listen that Canada kept the global system of resettlement alive over the course of the last few years when some other players around the world retracted and the world was shut down for reasons that we all appreciate now.
From my perspective, I was blown away when I came to learn that, in the year 2020, Canada resettled one-third of the total number of refugees resettled around the entire world. I think this is something Canadians should be really proud of. It's not just a government thing. Canadians and communities across the country have embraced refugees with open arms.
On a relative scale of commitments in Afghanistan, on a per capita basis, we're the ball game. On a raw numbers basis, the United States is the tops because they had such a massive evacuation effort. Australia's made a significant commitment with 31,500 over the next four years. I pulled some of these numbers ahead of time. I see that the European Union has a total just shy of 40,000, with 37,000. New Zealand has just shy of 1,500. The United Kingdom has 20,000 over the next few years. They may go further because they have two programs, but I haven't seen clear targets on one. The U.S., of course, has provided support for the resettlement of up to 95,000. We've been working with the U.S. to have some referrals that they've evacuated be resettled in Canada. Some of those people are in process already.
Those are most of the big players on the scene when it comes to the Afghan refugee resettlement. By this time next year, with the exception of the United States, I expect Canada will probably surpass not just where other countries are but potentially their entire goal over the life cycle of this entire effort, which sometimes spans four or five years.
From my perspective, we're owning up to our reputation as being the best in the world at what we do, and this is what we do.