OTTAWA — Some Kabul safe houses, where hundreds of Afghans who helped the Canadian military and non-governmental organizations are waiting to flee to Canada, are set to be closed in two weeks because of lack of funding.
An organization running the safe houses, where around 1,700 people with approval to come to Canada are being housed and fed, say that "time has run out" for them.
Without government support, some will have to close because they do not have the cash to keep all of them open.
The safe houses, set up for interpreters who helped the Canadian military and Afghans working with Canadian non-governmental organizations, are funded by veterans, charities and private donations.
Afghans already approved to come to Canada are to be told imminently there is not enough funding to keep housing them all, said Stephen Watt from Northern Lights Canada, which works with refugees.
Wendy Noury Long, director of the Afghan Interpreters Association, said Afghans with papers to come to Canada are facing being turned out "into the cold" in Kabul. She said the Canadian government has been asked for funding to keep the safe houses open, but it has not yet been forthcoming.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Friday that the federal government is still finding new ways to bring Afghan refugees to Canada.
"By working with our allies, civil society groups, neighbouring countries and an array of other partners, we're exhausting all options and finding new routes to bring refugees to safety in Canada," Alex Cohen said in a written statement.
"An important part of this is working closely with a variety of veterans groups, NGOs and other organizations on the ground in Afghanistan — including financial support. Since the conclusion of evacuations, we've worked together to help roughly a thousand refugees leave Afghanistan. We cannot share more details due to security concerns."
The safe houses were set up as a temporary measure — a staging post before travel to Canada, Noury said. But because so few Afghans are able to leave Kabul, they are stuck there “as sitting ducks," she said.
Aman Lara, the Canadian non-governmental organization that is running the safe houses on the ground, said because evacuations were so slow it did not have funds to keep them all open.
"Due to the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, Aman Lara regretfully has to scale back accommodation support to Afghans in need of evacuation by Nov. 5. Currently, approximately 1,700 people are under our care,” the organization said in a written statement.
“We had expected that applications would be processed in a timely manner and evacuations would be swifter. Unfortunately, our ability to finance the accommodations has diminished and time has run out.”
The accommodations are costly and have been funded through private donations, it added.
“While it is disappointing to scale back these accommodations, Aman Lara is committed and will continue to focus on the safe evacuation of vulnerable Afghans out of Afghanistan. We are working closely with the government of Canada and are exploring both land and air options, to facilitate their pathway to Canada."
Interpreters, and others who helped Canadians posted in Afghanistan, were shepherded to the relative safety of Kabul before the Taliban took control of the country. 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.
Noury Long said there was "an inability to indefinitely fund these facilities in any kind of long-term capacity" and that escaping Afghanistan — even through neighbouring borders — was becoming increasingly difficult.
Canada has pledged to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees who have fled the country and has set up a special program for especially vulnerable Afghans including women leaders, human rights activists and persecuted minorities.
Around 3,700 Canadians and Afghan refugees, including former interpreters were airlifted out by Canada before the end of August.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced on Friday that Canada will resettle up to 322 more Afghans who helped NATO countries, and their immediate family members, who must meet Canada’s admissibility requirements. This pledge is in addition to up to 150 NATO-affiliated Afghans in the process of being resettled in Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.
Marie Woolf and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press