OTTAWA — The Canadian government has quietly changed the criteria on its website for a special program for vulnerable Afghan refugees so that only those who have already managed to escape to other countries are eligible.
The online criteria for the "special humanitarian program" used to include Afghans "who are in Afghanistan or outside of Afghanistan," but it was changed this month to apply only to those "outside of Afghanistan."
The program is one of two set up to help bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada and is intended for vulnerable groups including women leaders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and journalists.
The online criteria for the other program, which is aimed at interpreters and others who helped Canada during its military mission as well as embassy staff, still allows those inside Afghanistan to apply.
When the government first announced the special humanitarian program in August, it said it would apply to those outside Afghanistan, but it ultimately included those stuck inside the war-torn country in its online criteria.
Canada was the first country worldwide to launch a special pathway to Canada for women, girls, LGBTQ and targeted minorities in Afghanistan.
Groups working with Afghans trying to flee the country said the change to the program's eligibility criteria on Canada's official website would sow confusion and desperation among Afghans hoping to come to Canada.
It could drive Afghans to resort to people smugglers to get outside the country in order to qualify, they warned.
Alex Cohen, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said Canada was "the first country in the world to announce a humanitarian program for Afghan refugees, which will see some 40,000 refugees start new lives in this country."
The humanitarian initiative, he said, requires refugees to have left their country of origin to be consistent with the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
He said the government is "adapting our programs to the evolving situation in Afghanistan, and have added a provision to enable two new partner organisations to refer exceptional cases of individuals who are inside Afghanistan."
"We regularly review IRCC's public communications to ensure they reflect our policies and provide the best possible information to applicants, and update them accordingly," he said. "The edit to our website was a communications change, not reflective of a policy shift."
Stephen Watt of Northern Lights Canada, a refugee organization, said the government's plan to bring 40,000 Afghans to Canada has been wrapped in secrecy ever since it was announced.
"There is still no clear way to apply to the program, or to discover who it is accepting or how it is operating," he said. "This is a life and death question for many of the people we are talking to within Afghanistan.
"Our government needs to come clean about its plans for these very vulnerable people who it promised to help in the heat of the election, and provide a clear path for providing that help. This isn't a time for empty promises and secret processes."
Canada ended its airlift mission from Kabul near the end of August as the U.S. was completing its own withdrawal from the country. Thousands of people with permission to travel to Canada were left behind — including Canadian citizens.
Since the Taliban seized control, it has been increasingly difficult to get people out.
Wendy Noury Long, director of the Afghan Interpreters Association, said she feared that government's change to its criteria, made in mid October, would drive desperate Afghans to go to extreme lengths to get out of the country so they qualify.
"People will be thinking how do I get out? Do I contact human smugglers? Countries are actively deporting people back to Afghanistan," she said.
"This is a policy change. This is the explanation of whether you qualify. You are taking a huge risk to try to get out to another country and you might find yourself deported back to Afghanistan."
The humanitarian program Canada set up to help Afghans at risk has strict eligibility criteria. To qualify, Afghans must also be a woman leader, a human rights advocate, a member of a persecuted religious or ethic minority, in the LGBTQ community, or a journalist or someone who has helped Canadian journalists. As of mid October, they must be located outside Afghanistan.
Those who fit these criteria need to register for refugee status through existing refugee programs, with the United Nations Refugee Agency or the government where they live, and wait to be referred. They can also be identified as eligible by a private sponsor.
Around 3,700 Canadians and Afghan refugees, including former interpreters, were airlifted out by Canada before the end of August.
Approximately 1,700 interpreters and other Afghans with papers to come to Canada are currently in safehouses in Kabul. Some safehouses, being run by an NGO and funded by veterans and private donations, face closure within weeks because of lack of funding.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2021.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press