Her family fled the Taliban. But Canadian delays could see them forced back to Afghanistan

Naik Arbabzada has been racing against the clock to bring her sister’s family to Canada.

The Afghan-Canadian woman has raised the money, done the paperwork and found a partner organization to help her make it a reality.

But now, on the eve of pulling them out of the shadow of the Taliban and that of authorities in Tajikistan, she’s hit yet another hurdle.

Arbabzada, 31, resettled in Canada with her parents 20 years ago and just graduated from the University of Alberta’s medical school in June. In July, when she was asked to submit a quarantine plan for her elder sister’s family to resettle here, she thought Ottawa would soon issue them visas and fly them here from Tajikistan. Her sister’s family has been in exile for a year in the country, which borders Afghanistan.

But time is running out as Tajikistan authorities have ramped up their efforts to detain Afghan refugees and forcibly deport them back to Afghanistan, despite some having been approved for resettlement in western countries, including Canada.

In late August, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, issued a warning to Tajikistan, calling for a ban on forced returns of all Afghan nationals. Its data shows there were at least 13,000 Afghan refugees in the country as of February.

“But they’re still doing it,” said Arbabzada. “We’re on the eve of having our family coming to Canada, but my sister and her family were told by the (Canadian) government that there won’t be a flight to fly them out until late October or early November.”

It’s just another obstacle that Arbabzada has had to overcome since her sister and family made it out of Kabul, when the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban last August.

In the summer of 2021, the Edmonton woman put together a private group of friends and acquaintances to raise the money required to resettle her sister, brother-in-law and their six children in Canada.

However, the group couldn’t pursue a private sponsorship of the family because it was unable to secure the “refugee status determination” paper, a document it needed from the Tajikistan government for people to be recognized as refugees in need of resettlement.

Arbabzada eventually got the St. Paul Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, which shares a refugee sponsorship agreement with Ottawa, to take on her sister’s case because applicants through an agreement holder don’t require the status-determination paper. An application was filed in January.

Tema Frank, a member of Arbabzada’s sponsorship group, said the application was progressing well and the family was approved for resettlement on July 11. The file was closed on Aug. 21, pending the issuance of the visa and scheduling of a flight.

But Ottawa and Tajikistan seem to be working on different timelines.

“Ottawa is saying they’re not going to get them a flight until after the paper allowing them to be in Tajikistan is expired on Oct. 5. Tajikistan is not renewing anybody’s papers. In fact, they’re throwing people back over the border even when they still have valid papers,” said Frank, whose group has already raised more than $70,000.

“Quite apart from all the personal trauma and the risk of death that these people are facing, think of all the money and effort that’s been wasted, even on the government’s part, getting these people and approving them and doing their medical screenings. Now, they’re just going to let that slip away because they couldn’t be bothered to put them on a flight a little bit sooner?”

Ottawa has committed to resettle at least 40,000 refugees and vulnerable Afghans. So far, 18,540 have arrived, including more than 2,100 from Tajikistan. The majority of those coming from the country were privately sponsored refugees.

The UN has had a global non-return advisory for Afghanistan since August 2021. In a recent incident in August, UNHCR reported that five Afghans, including a family made up of three children and their mother, were returned to Afghanistan through the Panji Poyon border checkpoint in southern Tajikistan.

“We are deeply concerned about reports that individuals are being deported back to Afghanistan from Tajikistan,” said immigration department spokesperson Michelle Carbert. “We are engaging with the Government of Tajikistan and working with key partners in the region to support Afghans who are being resettled to Canada.

“We are navigating an extremely complex situation and there are significant challenges chartering flights in some regions. In addition, each country sets its own entry and exit requirements and determines when and if these requirements are changed.”

Carbert would not disclose the number of Afghans in Tajikistan approved but pending resettlement in Canada but said more flights are anticipated in coming weeks.

Travel for privately sponsored refugees is arranged by Canadian immigration officials and the International Organization for Migration, and private sponsors here are reimbursed for the costs. Arbabzada says she has contacted Immigration for help to no avail.

“We’d have liked to book a flight ourselves, but my sister and her family don’t have a visa. Whether we pay for it now or later, they’ll have to pay the government back anyways,” said Arbabzada, whose sister’s family is too afraid to leave home for fear of deportation.

“We just need to get them here before Oct. 5. There are more many people waiting in Tajikistan. We need more flights to get them out. We don’t have the luxury of time.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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