In politics, timing can be everything. During the 2015 Federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau was able to outmaneuver then Prime Minister Stephen Harper by promising that he would bring more Syrian refugees to Canada, and faster, then Harper was promising. The death of Alan Kurdi and the image of his body on a beach, motivated nations, including Canada, to act with haste and increased aid towards Syrian refugees fleeing the violence and terror of a civil war. With Trudeau winning the 2015 election, Canada resettled more than 40,00 Syrian refugees. It was a good news story that fit into Canada’s national narrative as a refuge welcoming country. A narrative which the governing Liberal party tries to hold as its own political brand.
By contrast, timing has not been on Trudeau’s side when it comes to the plight of refugees from Afghanistan. Taliban forces took control of Kabul on August 15, 2021 and became the de facto government of Afghanistan after a hurried pull out by the United States of America. Canada had announced earlier in July that it would help those Afghans who “put themselves at great risk to help Canada”, but this promise had little clarity and even less focus after the election writ was dropped on August 15. Post-election, Trudeau now risks serious harm to the Liberal brand if he does not act more decisively to assist Afghans in need.
This week a coalition of Canadian refugee advocates and organization published an Open Letter posted on the World Refugee and Migration Council website. The Council includes former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, Former Ambassador to the UN Allan Rock, and current Senator Ratna Omidvar, amongst its governing Council Members.
The succinct letter asks for Canada to clarify which Afghans it will assist and how. It asks for Canada to devote “significant additional human resources” to the task and to waive the pre-requirement that these refugees undergo UNHCR assessments before they can be privately sponsored. Under current Canadian refugee laws, a group of private Canadian citizens cannot initiate the sponsorship of a refugee from outside Canada unless this refugee has been first recognized by the UNHCR. Waiving this condition and deeming the Afghanistan situation as one that is a prima facie refugee situation is a major request made in the Council’s letter. It is a request, which if granted, would greatly assist the refugees.
It is still unclear, how the Canadian government will respond. While some delay might be understandable in a context where the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship was only sworn in last week, for the Afghan community in Canada which numbers over 90,000, the delays in assistance have become unbearable. The promises of July have borne little fruit as we enter November.
In my view a part of what differs between the Syrian case and that of Afghanistan is that there appears to be much less fervour by Canadians to jump in and help this time. There is a clear sense of fatigue as Canada deals with the fourth wave of Covid, economic uncertainty, and the growing climate emergency. With the end of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan in 2014, there also appears to be an inability for Canadians to understand the linkages between Canada’s stated development mission in Afghanistan, which began more than 20 years ago, and the need to assist Afghan refugees today.
The new Liberal government needs to remember that the timing of the next election might be closer than they think. As the Open Letter points out, this is not at time for laxity on the Afghan refugee file.