] measures in place to bring relief to the Afghan people.
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 meeting participants that screenshots or taking photos of your screen is not permitted.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
Members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of floor, English or French. If interpretation is lost, please inform me immediately and we will ensure that interpretation is properly restored before resuming the proceedings. The “raise hand” feature at the bottom of the screen can be used at any time if you wish to speak or alert the chair.
For members participating in person, proceed as you usually would when the whole committee is meeting in person in the committee room. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you are on the video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself. For those in the room, your microphones will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer. When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
As a reminder, all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. Please keep all proceedings within the time allocated in order to have equal and fair participation among us all.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses and express our appreciation to them for being here with us this evening. Witnesses have five minutes per organization for opening statements.
From Doctors Without Borders, we have Martine Flokstra, operations manager; and Jason Nickerson, humanitarian representative to Canada. From UNICEF, we have Manuel Fontaine, director of the office of emergency programmes. Shortly, from CARE Canada, we will have Barbara Grantham, president and chief executive officer.
We will start with Doctors Without Borders.
Please go ahead. You have five minutes.
Thank you for having us at tonight's hearing.
Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, is an international medical and humanitarian organization that has provided exclusively independent, impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance since 1971 in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law and principles.
MSF first worked in Afghanistan in 1980. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, MSF negotiates our access and our protections with all parties to the conflict, and at all levels, from the most local to the most international, and everyone in between. It is this model of principled humanitarian action that today, and throughout the worst of the fighting, has allowed MSF teams to continue to deliver medical services, free of charge, in five projects throughout Afghanistan, in Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Kunduz and Lashkar Gah, while also retaining a coordination team in Kabul.
MSF runs its activities with 2,350 Afghan and 75 international staff, with a budget of $46.7 million in 2021. We rely solely on private donations and do not accept funding from governments for our work in Afghanistan. Our medical operations address significant unmet needs among the Afghan population. For example, we assist, on average, 4,000 births per month in Khost and Lashkar Gah, provide consultations to 20,000 people per month in our emergency departments and admit more than 170 babies per month to our neonatal ward in Khost.
The key focus and driver of our presence are the medical needs of people like you and me. The Afghan population has been chronically exposed to conflict for decades. Additionally, they are affected by the consequences of drought, the direct and side effects of COVID-19 and the transition of power in August 2021. For many years, the budget of the Afghan government was largely dependent on foreign donor money. This also included the health system, which has been chronically fragile and weak. Following the abrupt stop of structural development money and the freezing of assets in August 2021, the country has tumbled into an economic, banking and liquidity crisis, which has led to increased needs amongst the population.
We want to draw the committee's attention to the deteriorating health situation in Afghanistan and the reasons for this. Most health structures in the country are under great pressure with staff and equipment shortages, and many are closed or poorly functioning. This means that many patients cannot access the care they need, with private health care unaffordable for millions. “These days, you have to be rich to provide your family with a meal per day,” a patient told us recently. A doctor of a public hospital, who had not received a salary for five months, told us that they had to perform a Caesarean section with the light of a flashlight app on their mobile phone since the hospital could not pay for fuel for the generator anymore.
Recent funding announcements still leave the health system with far fewer funds than before, and will not improve a health system that was already failing. Short-term band-aids are being handed out while longer-term solutions are unknown. For months, MSF has seen increasingly higher numbers of malnourished children in its in-patient feeding centres in Helmand and Herat. This is likely due to a combination of factors—persistent drought, food scarcity, an economic and cash crisis, and a health system in a state of disarray.
September was the first month in years when Afghans could move freely without fear of being caught up in conflict, and this led to a significant increase in patient numbers in MSF's facilities. This period also coincided with the suspension of funding to the health system in August, meaning that many facilities closed or stopped functioning due to a shortage of staff, supplies and funds, leading to a further influx of patients coming to the few functional hospitals and health centres.
Malnutrition is a big concern. Although admissions have decreased since September, MSF's intensive therapeutic feeding centres in Herat and Helmand are extremely busy. Children who experience malnutrition have weakened immune systems, making them more vulnerable to the effects of other health conditions. Today, in addition to the failing health system, the country now faces recorded outbreaks of cholera, measles, COVID-19 and other infectious diseases that all necessitate their own response while placing a further strain on health systems.
The ripple effect of pre-existing sanctions and the financial measures against Afghanistan's new de facto government are being felt deeply nationwide. The country faces near economic and institutional collapse, including an inability to provide most basic services and pay civil servant salaries. The population is between a rock and a hard place. The banking sector is paralyzed, which bars people from accessing their savings and also makes it harder for organizations providing health care, like MSF, to pay salaries and cover the running cost of hospitals. In the places where MSF works, we see humanitarian needs are increasing while the humanitarian response is being made more complex as a result of interconnected factors, such as international sanctions, the cash flow crisis, disruptions to the banking system and others.
We are extremely concerned about a further deterioration of the current crisis faced by the people in Afghanistan. It is essential that this committee examine the impacts of Canadian anti-terror legislation, not only on the Afghanistan crisis, but more broadly on humanitarian assistance provided inside armed conflicts.
We thank the committee for the opportunity to speak with you today, and we're happy to provide answers to your questions.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to the committee for convening this meeting, which comes at a crucial time for the people of Afghanistan.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Canada for being an important partner for Afghanistan and a force for good for years. Together, we've made a lot of progress over the past few years.
Right now, however, we're facing a very dire humanitarian situation. I've been a humanitarian for 30 years, and I can assure you that these are some of the largest numbers I've seen in my career. The country is currently facing the worst drought in 27 years, while at the same time suffering from the impacts of years of conflict and insecurity; the collapsing economy; multiple disease outbreaks, such as measles and diarrhea; natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake; the bank liquidity crisis; and COVID-19.
As a result of this, the needs of children and families are unprecedented in Afghanistan. More than 24 million people, including 13 million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. For UNICEF, what this means is millions of children in Afghanistan whose outlook for 2022 is not good. [Technical difficulty—Editor] of all children under five are facing acute malnutrition, and 1.1 million will face severe acute malnutrition this year. Four million children are out of school, 60% of them girls, and an estimated 8.8 million children are at risk of dropping out if schools don't start back and are not able to welcome them.
An estimated four million children are in need of protection. Nearly a quarter of the country lacks safe drinking water. Close to 35,000 cases of measles were reported in 2021, plus the issues we are facing with acute watery diarrhea, polio, dengue and COVID-19.
UNICEF is on the ground, just as MSF and other colleagues are. We're on the ground, and we've launched our largest appeal to reach 15 million people, including eight million children, in 2022. We really have, together, to avert what is the imminent collapse of critical social services, including health, nutrition, sanitation and education services for families.
Our priorities are the following. We have to prevent a collapse of basic services. We really [Technical difficulty—Editor] frontline workers, such as health workers, as part of the [Inaudible—Editor] program. We also need to start payments now to teachers to make sure they can remain in schools and welcome children when winter is over, which will be quite soon. To do this, we need the support of the international community for the long term as well.
It is about education. It is about making sure that children are not dropping out and that girls are going back to school. An important element will be the payment of teachers, including women teachers of course. However, in addition to the formal schools, we have community-based education, which is also quite important at the moment. We all know that children who are out of school are at risk of not going back, but they're also at risk of other protection risks, such as child marriage or child labour, and the potential risk of trafficking.
There is also health. UNICEF is aiming to provide 15 million people with life-saving care by supporting the health system through payments, community capacity and vaccination, and having the mobile health services that we've been running for quite some time. Bringing back and keeping health workers, nurses and doctors in health facilities is crucial.
We also have a cash program, which will allow us to help families meet their basic needs. We're expanding the use of humanitarian cash transfers and have so far reached about 35,000 households—a bit more than 250,000 people—since mid-December, just to get them through the winter. We need to accelerate that.
I want to thank Canada for the strong support over the years. I urge you to stay really engaged in Afghanistan over the next few months—I'm sure this committee is proof that this is the case—and work with us to make sure we avert the human disaster that we're about to see.
I am very sorry. I had one of those horrible technological nightmares signing on. I am here; I am going to proceed and I ask for your patience. Please accept my very sincere apologies.
I'm speaking to you from our offices located on the unceded and unabandoned territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe nation. I thank the committee for inviting us to appear as part of this study.
CARE has been working in Afghanistan since 1961, and has received generous Canadian funding since 2001.
I have two key messages for this committee this evening.
First, as Mr. Nickerson has already alluded, the Canadian anti-terror legislation currently bars humanitarian organizations from implementing Canadian-funded programs in Afghanistan, and this must be addressed immediately. The humanitarian imperative to respond is clear, with concurrent crises leading up to the takeover and escalating dramatically since then. Yet humanitarian organizations like CARE are unable to respond. The Taliban is on Canada's Anti-terrorism Act list of terrorist entities, and it is the country's de facto government. The view is that paying ordinary taxes on rent, salaries, imports, etc. would violate Canada's Criminal Code, which makes it a criminal offence to make available resources and services “knowing that...they will be used by or will benefit a terrorist group”.
The intent of this legislation was never to impede life-saving humanitarian support from reaching the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan, but this is the result. CARE has been unable to implement Canadian-funded programs in Afghanistan since August 2021. Our mobile health teams cannot travel to remote areas, purchase medicine or provide protection or nutrition services—in a country in which one million children are at risk of dying of malnutrition.
Canada is the only institutional donor to the CARE confederation whose funding has not resumed.
This interpretation of the law also does not align with the vision and objectives of Canada's feminist international assistance policy, which acknowledges that “[w]e need to be willing to take responsible risks, with decisions based on evidence and learning”. The policy itself acknowledges that delivering responsive and accountable assistance for meaningful social change cannot be achieved without this.
We urge the Government of Canada to pursue all innovative solutions that ensure that Canadian humanitarian organizations can resume operations without exposure to criminal liability, as per the UNHCR, in the short and the long term.
My second message to you this evening is that gender equality and the response efforts of women, humanitarian and civil society leaders must be prioritized in Canada's support to Afghanistan. Principled humanitarian action must reach all people in need, and it's necessary to acknowledge that gender inequality persists and leads women, girls and marginalized people to be disproportionately affected by crises like this one. Of the 22.8 million people facing acute food insecurity, half are women and girls. Of the more than 500,000 people displaced in 2021, at least 80% are women and children. For this reason, local women's leadership is critical to delivering humanitarian aid, especially in marginalized communities, and it must be prioritized in the response efforts.
Women-led NGOs' own ability to deliver [Technical difficulty—Editor] communities is severely constrained by the ongoing economic and liquidity crisis, as you have learned, and they are unable to access funds to run their operations. While it's possible in some provinces, the full participation of women humanitarian staff remains limited, which risks marginalizing women and girls even further.
To conclude, first we urge Canada to pursue all innovative solutions that allow Canadian humanitarian organizations to resume programming in Afghanistan in the short and long term. Second, Canada must prioritize the leadership of women humanitarian staff and civil society organizations in our response. Flexible, predictable funding must reach these local responders, and the newly established Afghan women advisory group, which informs the humanitarian country team's engagement with the Taliban, must also be supported by Canada.
I look forward to interacting with committee members in the discussion to follow.
Thank you to the committee. I look forward to your questions.
I'm very grateful to all of the witnesses here this evening.
Mr. Fontaine pointed out that he was very pleased that we struck this committee. I want to remind my hon. colleagues from all parties of this committee's mandate. The wording is very clear. In fact, my party had moved an amendment to the original motion to have this committee focus on the current humanitarian crisis and the situation in Afghanistan in the short-term future. I would like everyone to remember what we passed in the House of Commons: This committee was created to help people on the ground right now and to find solutions in short order.
Ms. Grantham, I would like to ask you about something you just mentioned in your remarks. In fact, other witnesses talked about this last week, in terms of what is happening in Afghanistan right now. They said that the Criminal Code might need to be amended so that NGOs on the ground could operate in Afghanistan without fear of being accused of funding terrorism. In my opinion, this is a very important subject that we need to address.
What are your thoughts on this, Ms. Grantham?
Mr. Nickerson and Mr. Fontaine can also answer the question.
Thank you for the question, Mr. Brunelle‑Duceppe.
Let me make it clear that CARE Canada's Canadian funding is effectively not operational on the ground in Afghanistan, because of the restrictions of the Criminal Code.
The current framing of the Criminal Code, as interpreted by the government, is that the risk of prosecution under the code would be entirely borne by humanitarian organizations like CARE if we were to proceed without an exemption or some form of workaround, or a change to the legislation as the current Criminal Code sits. All of those are options. We have been working actively with counterparts inside the Government of Canada to endeavour to bring those options to bear, but the reality is that the timeline here does not jive with the timeline you have heard from Monsieur Fontaine in terms of the short-term acute nature of this crisis.
I really want to emphasize that Canada is the only significant donor/funder, sovereign funder, to Afghanistan that has not provided some form of exemption or change to its Criminal Code framework that enables the humanitarian organizations from those countries to operate. In the case of CARE, all of our CARE compatriots, across the confederation globally, are able to operate in Afghanistan, with the exception of CARE Canada.
I would reiterate, Monsieur Brunelle-Duceppe, my comments that women and girls—and marginalized communities, in which I would include LGBTQ Afghans—are significantly disproportionately negatively impacted by the current nature of the crisis.
While Canadian funding is not currently activated in Afghanistan, as we've made clear in this presentation already, we're in very close and regular touch with our other CARE colleagues on the ground in Afghanistan.
The programs we're providing are largely in the area of health care, nutrition and protection services, particularly for women who are victims of gender-based violence and girls who are victims of violence. These are largely delivered through mobile health teams in a number of provinces across the country.
We also do a lot of primary health care in the whole area of COVID-19 response, vaccinations, first aid, trauma support, sexual and reproductive health services and so on. We do a lot of work in the whole area of nutrition, infant and child feeding and nutrition—
I call the meeting back to order.
Because I gave everyone a fair chance in the last round, I would like to see if we have consensus from committee members to extend this session by 15 minutes in order to be fair to the witnesses.
Do I have unanimous consent?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the new witnesses.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. I would remind you that all comments should be addressed through the chair. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of floor, English or French. When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your microphone should be on mute.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses and express our appreciation for their being with us this evening. Witnesses, you have five minutes for opening statements per organization.
With us, from the Afghan Youth Engagement and Development Initiative, we have Ms. Khalidha Nasiri. From the Canadian Hazara Humanitarian Services, we have Mr. Ali Mirzad and Mr. William Maley. Finally, from Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, we have Dr. Lauryn Oates.
Now we can start with the witnesses.
We'll go to Ms. Nasiri for five minutes, please.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thank you to the honourable members of the Special Committee on Afghanistan.
The Afghan Youth Engagement and Development Initiative, known as AYEDI, is a not-for-profit organization that builds civic engagement and social development among Afghan Canadian youth. While we do not have a presence in Afghanistan, we work with refugee youth and families within Canada and have been actively engaged in advocacy around the crisis. Our group is led by Afghan youth who have family members both within and outside of Afghanistan impacted by the crisis.
It's important to set the context for Canada's role in Afghanistan, because the scope of our response so far has unfortunately been insufficient. While Canada has contributed to important gains with respect to the rights of women and girls and other development progress, it was also involved in a combat mission and a war. About 48,000 Afghan civilian lives were lost, and that's according to conservative estimates; 159 Canadian Armed Forces members, Canadian accountants, a Canadian journalist and other Canadians working there lost their lives. We have a moral obligation to those who died—and to those still there doing everything they can to prevent mass death and economic collapse—to take on a much bigger and vocal role in the response to the crisis.
Afghanistan is in a full-blown crisis as its economy free-falls. Millions of children and youth are losing their formative years for development. Young Afghans have known nothing but conflict and instability their entire lives. Children do not know the definition of home.
According to the UN, 4.2 million young Afghans are out of school and 60% of those are girls. Without interventions, this number will increase to 7.9 million. Children and youth cannot study if their stomachs are empty. According to UNICEF, in 2022, 1.1 million children will be in need of treatment for acute malnutrition. Afghanistan is marching towards famine. This means that Afghan children and youth are at heightened risk of child labour, early marriage, recruitment by insurgence and a bleak future.
According to first-hand accounts we've heard from humanitarian partners and families on the ground, girls are not going to school. Families have lost breadwinners to hunger. Mothers are making impossible decisions between selling their daughters and selling their kidneys to feed their families. Young women are being forced to hide for wanting to participate in society, be it through protesting for their rights or showcasing talents like singing.
Canadian charitable organizations with operations in Afghanistan are facing restrictions from their banks, presumably because of the grey area in Canada's Criminal Code section 83.03.
Canada has an opportunity for leadership. In line with Canada's feminist international assistance policy and standing in the world as a human rights advocate, we must act. We have several recommendations to the committee.
First, we acknowledge the $66.5 million in aid that Canada has committed to since August 2021, but more is needed in the short term and more is needed now. As previous colleagues have noted, without urgent stabilization of the hunger crisis and the economy, a disaster is approaching in mid-2022, which could include mass displacement into countries beyond the neighbouring ones.
Second, the humanitarian crisis response must include a refugee response component. We need to waive bureaucratic documentation and anything else needed to expedite resettlement. Luckily in Canada, we have [Technical difficulty—Editor] where prima facie status was designated to Syrian refugees during the Syrian crisis. In fact, since 2003, we have assigned prima facie status to Bhutanese, Karen and Somali Madhiban refugees. We also cannot forget those at heightened risk who are internally displaced within Afghanistan, to whom we should assign temporary resident permits, a call echoed by the Canadian Bar Association. We must commit to an accelerated timeline within 2022 to meet the commitment for 40,000 refugees. We should accept more. We should not err on the side of caution. We should err on the side of generosity.
Third, Canada should make efforts to reduce the impact of sanctions and counterterrorism measures on the provision of funding and the flow of goods into the country. While concerns about money getting into the hands of insurgency groups are valid, we need to listen to what Afghans are saying, which is that they need help. In this situation, there is no perfect decision. There is only the right one.
Finally, we want to ensure that the [Technical difficulty—Editor] and all parties uphold their obligations under international human rights law and ensure respect for the rights of all Afghans, including children's right to education.
Mr. Chair, Canada's position as an international advocate for human rights and justice depends on our response to this crisis. We urge Canada to act today, not tomorrow.
First, I want to thank you and your colleagues for the opportunity to participate in this very important discussion.
Mr. Chair, I'm not going to repeat here today what we had already conveyed to the House of Commons human rights subcommittee in June 2021, less than seven months ago: that I am a Hazara Canadian; that Hazaras have suffered over a century and a half of perpetual persecution; and that our people have been the victim of genocidal atrocities during the Taliban's previous rule in the 1990s, when we were hunted, singled out, labelled, and slaughtered simply for being a Hazara.
Mr. Chair, today I stand before you as a Canadian Afghanistani, because the pain and suffering that has been inflicted upon my native homeland is hurting all of us, regardless of our ethnicity, whether we are Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Aimaq or any of the other ethnicities that form the rich fabric of Afghanistan. We are all hurting. We're all in this together.
By Friday, August 13, 2021, as the Taliban were advancing towards Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Canada announced that it would resettle 20,000 vulnerable and at-risk Afghanistanis, which would have included women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted minorities, LGBTQI members and families of resettled interpreters.
Two days later, on Sunday, August 15, the Taliban [Technical difficulty—Editor] Kabul, the previous Afghan government fled away in helicopters, effectively surrendering the country and abandoning its roughly 38 million people. Unfortunately, on that very same day, the Canadian Parliament was dissolved, and, along with it, any hope that Afghanistanis had to be rescued simultaneously evaporated.
We're extremely grateful for the initiative and leadership Canada has shown on the international stage in making its great and hopeful commitments to securing the future of Afghans.
In September 2021, Canada further increased that bold commitment from 20,000 to 40,000, yet to this day scores of desperate Afghanistanis remain stranded within Afghanistan, while thousands more who fled to neighbouring countries now live as illegal aliens and must face the daily fear of deportation back to the Taliban's gulags.
The land mass of Canada is 3.8 million square miles, compared to the U.S.'s 3.7 million square miles. This quite simply means that Canada is a bigger country than the United States—specifically, 1.6% larger—but with only one-eighth of the population that the U.S. has. Canada has resettled only one-tenth of the Afghanistanis that our southern neighbours have thus far done. It is reported that the U.S. has evacuated 76,000, as opposed to Canada's 7,200.
Meanwhile, as the cold, unforgiving winter weather besieges Afghanistan, hundreds—if not thousands—are homeless, sleeping in the streets and public parks, while many others fleeing danger who have taken refuge in the mountains are freezing. According to the World Food Programme, 60% of Afghanistanis are now food-insecure, and the United Nations Development Programme reports that 97% of the population could fall into poverty by spring 2022.
Children and young girls are openly sold by desperate parents simply because they cannot afford to feed their own children. Women activists, human rights defenders and other ethnic minorities such as Hazaras have been dragged, beaten and abducted. The fate of many of these people remains unknown to this day, while the remains of some have been returned to their families.
That's unacceptable. How can any of us sleep at night having witnessed all this suffering? The good news is that we can change all of this.
Yes, Mr. Chair, we can and we must do everything in our power to change that. Canada has not only a big land mass, but also a big heart. Canada's goodwill and generosity can in fact ensure that no other girl is ever sold for food. Time and again, we have demonstrated that to the world, be it with the Vietnam boat people of the 1970s or more recently, in 2015, with the Syrian crisis, and we can do it again.
Across this vast country, Canadian Afghanistanis are extremely grateful for the enduring commitment that Canada has had to our people and our native homeland. Canadians have fought with tears and sweat, and even bled for the betterment of Afghanistan, but [Technical difficulty—Editor] Chair, will not get us there. We need concrete actions that must be executed immediately, while there's still time.
Therefore, we call upon the Canadian government to, one, appoint an ambassador at large for Afghanistan to ensure that Afghanistani's crisis is addressed through a timely and effective multipronged approach rooted in human rights, humanitarian aid, resettlement and diplomacy; two, work with the international community in utilizing all available tools to pressure the Taliban in immediately releasing all those who remain in captivity; three, engage with countries neighbouring Afghanistan to open their borders to Afghanistani refugees and uphold the right of refugees, including honouring the principle of non-refoulement; four—
Mr. Chair and committee members, thank you for having me this evening.
My name is Lauryn Oates. I represent the Canadian charity Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, which was established during the first Taliban regime. We've operated in Afghanistan for two decades, planning and implementing education programming in the areas of teacher education, literacy and technology for education, besides advocating for the equal right to education. Various projects under our purview over the years have been funded by the Government of Canada, and for this we are most grateful.
I'll describe some of the issues and challenges that we're observing within the sector as a whole, as well as specific issues facing our operations in Afghanistan, which may also represent the situation of other organizations like ours.
We hold the view that the fall of the previous Afghan government and its replacement by the Taliban was not inevitable. The response of the international community, led by the U.S. and including Canada and other governments that followed suit, played a role in enabling this outcome, when governments rather should have united to prevent it.
Governments and civil society organizations alike now face the quagmire of continuing programs and delivering aid to Afghanistan while avoiding recognizing, and therefore legitimizing, the de facto authorities, which are categorized as a terrorist entity, and rightfully so. The reality is that these terrorists now govern close to 40 million people who are trapped in Afghanistan.
Assuming the regime is there to stay—and it appears that this is what the international community has chosen to accept—as many of these people as possible need to be supported to leave. This requires thinking creatively to develop multiple avenues for Afghans to resettle in places where they will be safe, using partnerships with countries in the region and beyond, and supporting other governments to permanently resettle groups of Afghans. We strongly urge Canada to take this approach in order to assist more Afghans to reach safety.
In addition to robust support for those wishing to leave, Canada should also do what it can to meet the humanitarian and human rights needs of those left behind. To be clear, these two things—human rights and humanitarian needs—are inseparable. Women breadwinners have lost their employment due to Taliban policies. The stories of families selling children or women selling their organs are not urban myths. These are true stories and we hear them every single day. People are starving now. The human rights and humanitarian crises can only be understood together, and they can only be resolved together. This will require observing the fine balance of delivering meaningful assistance on the ground while not recognizing a regime that is not legitimate and is based on an ideology of violence and nihilism. Canada must at every turn vocally demand that the rights of women be upheld.
If a centrepiece of Canadian foreign policy is the feminist international assistance policy, then there is no place in the world where such a policy is more relevant than in the current situation in Afghanistan. Despite this, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Afghanistan, at this time it is not coming across that Afghanistan is a priority foreign policy issue for Canada. A Canadian moral stance is missing.
Besides courageous and outspoken diplomacy, we call for development assistance for both displaced Afghans and Afghans in Afghanistan. Our position remains that despite current conditions—in fact, because of them—the best place to invest is in human capital, like support programs that deliver education, build skills, increase employability and therefore reduce poverty and vulnerability, and ultimately, down the road, contribute to rebuilding peace and pluralism.
Despite the significant adaptations required, it is our intent to stay and deliver. As we contend with the challenges of operating in Afghanistan, ironically, one of the greatest barriers we face at this time originates from our own government.
Our most critical challenge at this time is having staff on the ground whose departure from Afghanistan has not, or at least not yet, been facilitated by Canada. They cannot leave—yet, as you've already heard, given Justice Canada's classification of the Taliban as a terrorist entity, it has become complicated, to say the least, for foreign NGOs to pay personnel in Afghanistan. Stuck where they are, people who were contracted to work on Canadian government programming, but who can no longer be paid through these programs, are there and in danger at this very moment.
I trust that my government will not leave behind my Afghan colleagues who worked to deliver programming arising from our feminist international foreign policy based on principles that are fundamentally antithetical to the Taliban system of gender apartheid.
We therefore urge the Government of Canada immediately to prioritize the processing and acceptance of special immigration measures applicants. In support of SIM and other Afghans headed for Canada, we further urge that the government provide an alternative to visa documents for Afghans who do not have passports, and that Canada engage with countries in the region to ensure that the right to safe passage of Afghans is upheld, which is not the case currently.
The management of immigration and refugee crises has been a challenge for bureaucracies worldwide for a very long period of time, but the lesson of history is that it is exceedingly dangerous to allow an increase of bureaucratic requirements to interfere with emergency rescue when circumstances dictate that it's required.
The classic example was in 1939, when a vessel called the St. Louis, containing over 800 people of Jewish background, set out for North America in the hope of escaping from the tyranny in Nazi Germany. They were turned away from Miami because they didn't fit within a quota system that had been put in place by a 1924 piece of legislation. They were then returned to Europe, disembarked in the Low Countries, and over a quarter of them were then killed in the Holocaust.
The lesson that flows from that is that bureaucracy can be life-threatening in these sorts of circumstances. It often takes strong leadership within an individual state to recognize the need to cut through red tape expeditiously so that circumstances that are quite beyond the mindsets of those who are operating in normal circumstances don't end up having lethal consequences.
Thank you to the honourable member for the question.
As you said, women and girls are at especially heightened risk as a result of the Taliban takeover, and the households without male guardians are even more so. As we've seen, the Taliban have imposed strict measures in certain provinces and areas. Women cannot travel or go out without a male companion, for example, or a woman cannot go to school or to a university class taught by a male professor. These are valid reports and concerns that we're seeing.
In terms of what the Canadian government can do, the first thing is to increase investment in humanitarian aid groups that are focused on helping women and girls. In this crisis, as I mentioned, there are predictions that up to 97% of Afghanistan will be in poverty by mid-2022, so in that situation, we have to prioritize the people most at risk. Groups that prioritize women and girls should be prioritized in that funding.
The second and final thing I will say is that in negotiations or in diplomatic interactions or engagements with the Taliban, we need to use every opportunity we get to bring up things that are happening to women, such as the disappearances of women and girls we've recently heard about, and the Taliban being surprised that the international community is holding them to that. That pressure does work, and it did result in changes recently where we've seen the Taliban allow women to return to university in some provinces.
So, essentially, it's funding and diplomacy.
First and foremost, I want to thank all of the witnesses here with us tonight on this important study, which we all care about.
Mr. Mirzad, thank you for coming back to testify before the committee. I recall that you testified in June 2021 before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. I was vice-chair at the time. Your testimony made an impression on me. One sentence in particular struck me, and that was when you stated that “the life of a Hazara in Afghanistan is that of a death row inmate living on borrowed time, awaiting an impending execution”.
That statement is even more true today. Moreover, it now describes the lives of the majority of Afghans, both Hazara and non-Hazara, who are fleeing the country.
Do these individuals turn to organizations like yours when they cross the border and seek refuge elsewhere?
Thank you for that very valid and important question.
Truth be told, all Afghans are suffering now, yes. The Taliban are an enemy and a danger to all Afghan people.
When people leave the country to go to Iran or Pakistan, for example, just all that travelling and crossing the border are a danger in themselves. Once they arrive in Pakistan, in refugee camps like Quetta or elsewhere, they face many sad realities and dangers all around them. For instance, right now the U.N. has no official presence. They have representation under contract with agencies mandated by the Pakistani government and the U.N. They have to go to these offices to get some kind of registration documents, but the documents don't give them legal status. So they run the risk of being arrested at any time and deported to Afghanistan.
Even crossing the border is no easy task. First of all, there's a crowd. I don't know if you remember the crowds at the Kabul airport, but it's three or four times worse than that.
In addition, people sometimes have to pay Pakistani soldiers to let them cross.
On top of all these risks and perils, once they cross the border they are not out of the woods because they can be caught at any time by the Pakistani authorities and sent back to Afghanistan.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to all of the witnesses for their presentations and, of course, for their ongoing work in providing assistance to those who are faced with a humanitarian crisis.
My first question is for Ms. Nasiri and Dr. Oates. It centres around the comments you made about the need to ensure that Canadian organizations that are in Afghanistan right now would be able to provide assistance, whether that be aid to children who are dying of malnutrition or to women's and girls' local organizations on the ground. They're unable to do so because of Canada's anti-terrorism laws.
In the previous panel, I asked the organizations if they would support this. If a legal agreement were to be entered into by the Canadian government and those organizations that are long-established here in providing humanitarian aid, would that be sufficient for them to provide humanitarian aid in Afghanistan? That is to say, the Canadian government would provide some sort of measure outside of legislative changes to ensure that staff would not be prosecuted and the organization would not face repercussions in relation to any potential violation of the Criminal Code.
Ms. Nasiri can answer first, and then I'll go to Dr. Oates.
Thanks to all the witnesses for coming. Your testimony is phenomenal, and I really like that you have all provided some great recommendations on the way ahead.
As I told the previous panel, if you're not aware, I spent a year-plus of my life over there in uniform. I left six of my own soldiers over there. What keeps me up and still has me so concerned is the future, especially for the women and children in that country under the Taliban. For those who need to get out, we need to do what we can to get them out now. That's the key focus. Again, the strong leadership that's required by our current government to make decisions and to work around this is essential in all aspects.
I'd like all the groups to weigh in quickly, in particular, on the need to utilize international organizations and other groups that have boots on the ground to get feedback to the Canadian government in order to get these people in need out as quickly as possible, as well as the need to streamline the whole refugee process in this case and to have some exceptions.
We can go to the Afghan Youth Engagement first. Ms. Nasiri, go ahead, please.
I'll add a comment, and then I'll let my colleague Dr. Maley answer.
Thank you so much, honourable member, for your question, and for your service to my country. We owe you a debt of gratitude. It's unfortunate that despite your sacrifices, the country has come to the state and shape it is in today.
To answer your question, I'll echo what my friend Ms. Nasiri said. It's the documentation, and the nuances of the processes. We're dealing with a country that's surrounded by the Taliban, governed by the Taliban. There's no electricity. There's no Internet. We're expecting people to fill out forms, and do this with the lack of technology.
People are using WhatsApp, which is very risky, because the Taliban's intelligence units are now cracking down on people. We've heard horror stories of people fleeing the country and having their phones confiscated and hacked. The Taliban 2.0 is not the Taliban of the 1990s. They are smarter [Technical difficulty—Editor] the technology to be a threat. We need to remove those nuances and get people out of danger.
Dr. Oates, first I want to thank you for everything you've been doing in Afghanistan.
I have been attending the dinner party in Oakville for about 15 years, starting long before I was a member of Parliament. I think it was in March 2012, one of the last things we did in the “before” times, when you expressed concerns at the dinner party about the negotiations the United States was in with the Taliban. You expressed concerns about the direction the country was going and the challenges you were facing at the time. I remember feeling sick hearing what you were talking about.
Not all people can leave Afghanistan. You've talked a lot about the importance of getting women out, but they can't all leave. You've been doing work on the ground for 20 years. Fixing legislation is a priority for the government, but I guess my question is, assuming that we are able to get around the issue of getting aid directly to the folks you're supporting in Afghanistan, are you going to be able to deliver your education programs, and is there anything else we should flag in order for you to deliver the programs you're delivering in Afghanistan?
Yes, we have not stopped delivering programs. We've continued to do it, but in a much adapted format. We've had to be creative and pivot things, but we are still delivering. We are fortunate to benefit from an ICT infrastructure that allows us to do that right now. Many people can still access the Internet, and we have other tools for those who can't, where we can use technology as a shortcut to get to people and make sure they can still get education.
We are a bit exhausted because, on top of that, we're also trying to respond to the emergency and the fact that people still need very basic things like food, as well as education. We're also trying to evacuate and protect the lives of our staff. If the government lifted that off our shoulders, that would allow us to do even more, so that's one of my key priorities. Then we could get back to our core business of focusing on the rights of women and girls and making sure they're protected.
Just to come to your first point about the negotiations, and to build on something Dr. Maley said as well, this is not just an issue about Afghanistan and the security of that region. The moment the U.S. started negotiating with the Taliban, this was a signal to groups like the Taliban, like ISIS, like Boko Haram, and this was very encouraging for them.
Even for people who perhaps don't really care about the fate of women and girls or the moral perspective here, they should care from a pragmatic perspective what this means for like-minded organizations in the world that are watching carefully how we're responding to the Taliban, and the risk of normalizing them.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to answer this very important question.
In my opinion, the two most important suggestions we could make have already been brought up during the meeting.
The first would be to eliminate all requirements around documents that must be provided, which are really just technical procedures. For example, you can't expect someone in Afghanistan to be able to fill out immigration forms if they have no electricity or Internet access or they are under fire or being whipped by the Taliban. So those procedures need to be waived.
Also, it would be a great help if people were not required to have refugee status without exception. Many Canadians would like to get people out of Afghanistan and bring them here, but they can't do that because it's not possible to get refugee status in this case. That's the second suggestion.
As for the third, I'd say that we need to have a diplomatic relationship with neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, and use our relationships with our allies to maintain a presence on the ground and be able to provide a way out for Afghans.