8 months in, Afghans stuck in Islamabad may finally have a path to Canada
The government of Pakistan's decision to grant safe passage to Afghans fleeing the Taliban should help get them into Canada faster, Canadian immigration officials said, though there still is no timeline for when a group of more than 40 families who have been waiting in Islamabad for months will arrive in Canada.
"I want an answer, of when will it happen? What does Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada want us to do?" Asad Ali Afghan asked from his apartment in Pakistan's capital.
Bureaucratic travel requirements in both Pakistan and Canada have created delays for the displaced Afghans trying to make their way to Canada, but Pakistan has now promised to help speed up the process by issuing temporary transit visas to facilitate travel here.
Afghan has been living in Islamabad with six family members since most of them slipped across the border with only their domestic Afghan identification papers because they did not have passports. A former interpreter for the Canadian military, Afghan fled Kandahar after his home country fell to the Taliban.
For the last eight months, he and multiple other Afghan families in Islamabad, who do not have Pakistani visas or Afghan passports, have been in hiding, barely leaving their cramped apartments or hotel rooms.
"It is a very risky area," Afghan said of Islamabad. "If police catch you, they'll say you have entered illegally because you don't have passports or visa," he explained, adding the refugee applicants were risking arrest.
Afghan has already been through the security screening required to come to Canada. So have most of the other families in Pakistan awaiting passage to Canada, he said.
He showed CBC News correspondence from the Islamabad Migration Office of Global Affairs Canada, dating from June 3, where a Canadian government official wrote: "As a result of having no legal status in Pakistan, you and your family will not be allowed to legally exit Pakistan in order to travel to Canada."
CBC News has also seen emails sent to eleven other families with the same language from the government of Canada, ranging in dates from February to mid-June, stating Pakistan was standing in the way of onward travel to Canada because of their lack of legal status.
The same notes also cited that lack of status as an impediment for applicants to receive any financial help from the United Nations' International Organization for Migration while they wait. The families say they left Afghanistan with barely any money and have been scraping by to survive.
On June 9th, the government of Pakistan issued a directive calling for "safe passage ... through land and air routes for vulnerable Afghans destined for third countries on a case by case basis, in coordination with the recipient third countries," an edict that is valid until the Aug. 8.
CBC News requested an interview with Pakistan's High Commissioner in Ottawa to find out exactly how that directive may apply to the Afghan families in Islamabad.
Zaheer A. Janjua was not available, but in a statement his office said the government of Pakistan will issue 30-day transit visas to Afghan citizens within 24 hours, and that will help them complete paperwork for onward travel.
"Those countries that had granted immigration to the Afghan citizens, could apply for transit visas from Pakistan," it added.
Confusion over the immigration process
However, this bit of news comes too late for Jamil Ahmad Noori, a former labourer with an engineering support team working for the Canadian Armed Forces in Kandahar.
He and his loved ones, including his elderly father Painda Mohammad Noori, a retired schoolmaster, fled to Islamabad in November 2021.
On June 10, Painda Mohammad Noori began to feel ill, stressed out over his family's uncertain situation.
His son rushed him to a hospital, but due to a lack of Pakistani documentation, was refused access until health care workers saw his situation was an emergency, Jamil Ahmad Noori told CBC News through an interpreter.
"He was confused about that process," Noori recalled. "He was praying for help from Allah." Painda Mohammad Noori died of a cardiac arrest that night.
Good news for waiting Afghans: Immigration Canada
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told CBC News Pakistan's decision to grant safe passage to Afghans fleeing the Taliban is good news for those still waiting to leave Afghanistan in order to come to Canada, and those in Islamabad who have onward travel to Canada already approved.
"Thousands of peoples' lives could be saved as a result of this agreement," Fraser said. "This has been a significant period of time to have the Pakistani government give permission for those who are destined to Canada to pass through Pakistan."
Fraser said he expects two charter flights out of Pakistan to arrive in Canada by the end of the month, though it is unclear if some or all of the 40 or so families currently in Islamabad will be able to board them.
"It will depend on the individual case, where the charters are going to, where the person may be destined to," he said.
As for financial compensation, Fraser said his office is still sorting out what the agreement with Pakistan might mean for people seeking help from the UN's International Organization for Migration.
Eleven Canadian government flights have brought Afghans from Pakistan to Canada in the last few months, but they have typically been filled with those who had documentation legally allowing them to be in Pakistan.
A statement from Fraser's office also said Immigration Canada is in communication with people still in Afghanistan in order to inform them that Ottawa can help facilitate travel to Pakistan.
Canada has settled more than 16,000 Afghans since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban through special immigration measures for former Canadian Armed Forces or Canadian government employees and their families, as well as vulnerable Afghans.
It has promised to bring in 40,000 Afghans to Canada in total through those measures, and encourages others to apply through regular Immigration Canada streams.
Last week, the Toronto Star reported the government is almost done allocating the special spots.