Afghan asylum seekers who’ve managed to flee the crisis in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over are complaining that they’re now being passed back and forth between agencies due to the lack of coordination with each other.
Asylum seekers like Gholam Hussain Mohammadi, for instance, say they haven’t even been able to apply for asylum and are stuck in limbo, with Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) telling them they have to go through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and vice-versa.
Mohammadi, a 28-year-old Afghan and Hazara Shiite who escaped Kabul with his family said he has sent emails to IRCC over and over again, explaining his situation in detail, but has yet to hear back. He strongly criticizes the inconsistency between the IRCC and the UNHCR.
“According to the IRCC, we have to apply for Canadian asylum through the UNHCR, while the UNHCR in Pakistan does not register us as asylum seekers. All we are told is that we should talk directly to the Canadian Embassy in Pakistan,” he told New Canadian Media from Islamabad, where he and his family are currently staying.
“Like thousands of displaced Afghans in Pakistan, my family and I are in a very difficult situation. The housing prices got very high and we cannot afford to rent one. That is why we lived in a mosque with many other displaced Afghans when we arrived in Karachi in Pakistan,” Mohammadi said.
After being evicted by Pakistani police from the mosque, they had to get to the capital, Islamabad. According to him, given the unaffordable cost of travel, they found a truck driver who offered them a ride at a lower cost. He and his family spent the first night of their stay in Islamabad in a park.
Mohammadi says when he went to the Canadian embassy there, he wasn’t allowed in because his “name had to be announced to the security police from inside (in order) to talk to the embassy staff.” So, he had to ask his questions to the security personnel instead.
“I was told to make an asylum claim through UNHCR if I have not assisted the Canadian government in Afghanistan,” Mohammadi says.
When he checked this at the UNHCR office in Islamabad, he was told that UNHCR does not help Afghans resettle in Canada through the special immigration programs that IRCC had recently announced.
“They said the only help we can offer you at this time is to issue you a permit that would protect you and your family from being expelled by the police of Pakistan,” Mohammadi said.
He has just been hired as a labourer in a bakery in Islamabad, but he is concerned it will not last long.
“My employer warned me that if I could not communicate with clients in Urdu, I would be fired. If I get fired, we will not even have something to eat,” Mohammadi says.
The UNHCR acknowledges that countries like Canada and others have implemented programs to allow some Afghan nationals “to apply for permission to travel to those countries,” according to its website. However, “these programs are established by those countries and UNHCR does not refer people to the programs or process applications.”
Canada is resettling Afghan nationals under two programs, the second one of which will resettle Afghan nationals currently outside of Afghanistan who did not necessarily work with the government of Canada. According to IRCC’s announcement, the second program will resettle Afghan nationals in two ways.
First, the government-assisted refugees’ program in which Afghan nationals must be referred to Canada by UNHCR or another designated referral organization. And second, privately sponsored refugees, a program that lets private individuals or groups sponsor eligible refugees abroad.
Asked to clarify this inconsistency, the UNHCR responded that: “UNHCR has long resettled Afghan refugees from first countries of asylum to a variety of resettlement countries based on individual needs and circumstances. We are continuing this work as a regular part of our global resettlement program. The process of resettlement depends on a series of interviews, checks, and clearances by resettlement countries which take time, often up to several years.”
Talking about the very long processing time, MahGol Jan-Ahmadi, a 36-year-old Afghan woman who went to Pakistan seven years ago and applied for asylum through the UNHCR, says she has no more hope of getting a response from the UNHCR after all this time. The single mother of three says their asylum application to the United States was rejected about five years ago and, since then, no progress has been made on their application by UNHCR.
Ahmadi is frustrated with the slow progress of their asylum case as well as the uncertainty they are struggling with.
“I am the only breadwinner of my family and the UNHCR is aware of my problems. For about six years, my daughters and I have been receiving financial support from UNHCR, which we were grateful for. But it is almost nine months that the supports have been cut off. I’m not literate enough to be able to find a job and I’m not familiar with Urdu,” she said.
She currently does laundry to meet the pressing needs of herself and her daughters. At the same time, she is learning to sew with a sewing machine provided by the UNHCR office.
“At my age, it is very difficult to learn a new skill in a foreign language. So, learning to sew would be a very long-term process for me,” she said.
For his part, Mohammadi, who used to work as a mechanical engineer in the Afghan Ministry of Defense and then in the Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority, says he “has no hope for the future,” except for that of his brother and sister, both of whom were studying before the Taliban took over.
Given the numerous cases such as Ahmadi’s and Mohammadi’s, the question is how much Canada’s humanitarian programs to resettle displaced Afghans through UNHCR could really do to improve their situation while living outside of Afghanistan under dire economic and security conditions?
“No one needs to be supported more than those Afghans who have been forced to flee Afghanistan,” said Mohammadi. “Our request to the government of Canada and other Western countries is to assist us to get out of this dire situation by accepting us as refugees.”
With a background in journalism and migration studies, Zahra Mahdi worked as a freelance correspondent covering immigration and refugee policies from May 2021 to April 2022. Her bylines also appeared in the Toronto Star. She is a Master’s student in Migration and Diaspora Studies at Carleton University and holds an undergraduate degree in journalism.