Less than halfway to its goal of bringing 40,000 Afghans to Canada, the federal government is no longer taking new referrals for the special immigration program meant to prioritize former employees of the Armed Forces or Canadian government and their families.
CBC News has learned the government is processing the last of the 18,000 applications filled out by Afghans hoping to come here through the program. Advocates for refugees say the decision to wind down the program abandons Afghans desperate to come to this country.
The program was set up nearly a year ago, a few weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, 2021 and before the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to bring 40,000 Afghans to safety here.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's online referral portal for the program is still up but a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser confirmed in a media statement that all spots in the program have been taken up.
"IRCC has applications for more than 15,000 Afghans and their family members in various stages of processing," the spokesperson wrote. "Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and National Defence have shared referrals with IRCC for the remaining spots."
The Toronto Star first reported the program appeared to be about to close in mid-June, prompting a coalition of aid organizations to issue a joint statement condemning the move.
"From the government side, there hasn't been a lot of clarity on precisely what the criteria are," said Lauryn Oates, the executive director of Canadian Women 4 Women in Afghanistan, one of the groups behind the joint statement.
'They are trapped and ... in danger'
Oates said 17 people from her organization have asked the Canadian government to state whether they qualify for the program. She said they all started the process last year but have not received invitations to apply yet.
"They have tried everything else. They have knocked on the doors of other governments, other embassies, all kinds of other programs," she said. "They are trapped and they are in danger."
Oates is calling on the government to extend the program for another year and to expand the number of spots open to Afghan immigrants.
"And parallel to that, we'll be trying everything possible to get our people out of the country and to safety," she said.
CBC News spoke to one Afghan who works with a Canadian non-governmental organization and is splitting his time between Pakistan and Kabul while he tries to stay one step ahead of the Taliban. He's among those waiting to learn if he qualifies for the Canadian program.
"I was left behind from Canada. I haven't heard back from them," he said. The CBC is not disclosing his name because both his office and his neighbourhood have been searched by the Taliban.
He said he was "shocked" by the former Afghan government's sudden collapse last August. He said that when the news came in, he went to find his wife and children and take them into hiding.
Other programs open, minister's office says
Fraser's office said other avenues remain for Afghans who wish to come to Canada, such as a humanitarian program and another to help families of former military interpreters who are already here.
MP Jasraj Singh Hallan, Conservative critic for immigration, called the decision to wind down the program "unconscionable."
"While winding down these programs to new applicants is shameful in its own right, it ignores that only half of the promised 40,000 Afghans have made it through the bureaucratic mismanagement," he said in a media statement.
"NGOs and veterans groups have been tied up in red tape left without Canada's support to evacuate Afghans who worked alongside the Canadian Forces and government. Minister Fraser must remove unnecessary barriers, fix existing programs and double their efforts to work with groups on the ground that are helping Afghans escape the Taliban. Lives are on the line with every delay."
WATCH | Ottawa closes special Afghan immigration program to new applicants:
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the government's claim that other immigration avenues remain open to Afghans is "deceptive."
"That is just a rejection," she said. "And telling people to go to other streams is a dead end for them.
"What the government needs to do is to come forward and open up that program to ensure that those who are eligible, those who served Canada, who are part of the Canadian military and their family members, are brought to safety."
Roughly 16,540 Afghans have arrived in Canada since August of last year.
In its statement to the CBC, Fraser's office also said it has received "hundreds of thousands of communications from those expressing interest in coming to Canada since the fall of Kabul.
"Regrettably, this is a far larger number than we can bring to Canada."