Canada Welcomes Hundreds of Afghan Refugees As Deportation Continues in Pakistan   

Afghan refugees arrive in Vancouver in February, 2022. Photo by HO /IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE CANADA

At least 325 refugees from Afghanistan arrived in Canada on Wednesday, November 15. A chartered flight landed with refugees on board in Calgary airport, one of the largest host cities for refugees from Afghanistan in the last two years.

The refugee families were brought from Pakistan, where the government has launched a country-wide operation since the beginning of November to expel what it calls ‘undocumented refugees’. Despite widespread international criticism, including from countries such as Canada, the UN, and human rights organizations, Pakistan continues to wound up Afghans to forcibly return them to Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands ended up in Pakistan after August 2021 trying to escape the Taliban brutality and a severe humanitarian and economic crisis that has left more than half of the country’s population in acute food insecurity. Nearly 300,000 have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan to date.

However, Pakistan is not alone in deporting Afghan citizens in search of protection and better opportunities. Afghan refugees are currently facing the same measures in Iran where the recent wave of deportations threatens millions living there without legal documentation, including those who arrived after 2021. Turkey has also joined Pakistan and Iran in the mass deportation of Afghan refugees, forcibly returning nearly 4,000 Afghans recently. International entities like UNHCR and IOM have opposed these expulsions, citing humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and the risks faced by returning refugees, especially women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), police harassment, assaults, and arbitrary detentions have escalated, affecting even those registered as refugees with the UNHCR.

In the aftermath of Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Canada announced that it would receive 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan in the next two years. Recent figures and reports by The Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) indicate that the government in Ottawa is close to meeting its target.

Among those fearing deportation from Pakistan are thousands who wait to be resettled to third countries, especially Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In the wake of worries about their fate if they were returned to an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, Canadian and British governments announced last week that they have expedited efforts to process Afghan refugees in their lists.

The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudue’s immigration policies have faced harsh criticism from his conservative opponents as the housing crisis and economic challenges continue to persist at home. Pierre Poilievre, the leader of the Conservative Party in a press conference in August this year criticized Canada’s immigration system, calling it broken. He committed to accelerating entry for skilled immigrants if his party wins the upcoming 2025 elections but did not say if he would maintain the planned annual intake of 500,000 immigrants by 2025. Poilievre denounced Trudeau’s target as ideologically driven and suggested that a Conservative government would tailor immigration policy based on private-sector needs, support for refugees by charities, and family reunification desires.

According to government data, Canada has spent more than $8 billion to resettle refugees from Afghanistan, which includes providing financial assistance during their first year in Canada. But given Canada’s increasing economic difficulties, refugees will face challenges even after arriving in Canada. The inflation rate reached an 18-year high of 4.7% last month, making it difficult for many Canadians to afford groceries and other necessities. Coupled with this, job market challenges persist, with certain demographics facing higher unemployment rates.

Unemployment in October 2023 surged to 5.7%, hitting its highest point since January 2022 and surpassing market expectations of 5.6%. This is in line with the Bank of Canada’s concerns regarding the impact of aggressive interest rate hikes, contributing to slower economic growth and creating a softer labor market landscape. Research underscores the formidable hurdles skilled immigrants face in Canada’s job market despite their significant contributions to the nation’s social and economic vitality. These individuals often struggle to secure employment aligned with their qualifications due to inadequate post-immigration support systems. This results in lower earnings and a propensity to live below the low-income threshold compared to Canadian-born peers.

The housing crisis has exacerbated in major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, with skyrocketing home prices and rental rates. In Toronto, the average home price surged by 2% making homeownership increasingly unattainable for many. Similarly, Vancouver’s housing market experienced a 5% rise in prices. In his August press conference, Poilievre claimed that it takes 66% of the average pre-tax family income to make the average mortgage payment. The amount was about 39% when Trudeau took office, according to Poilievre. It now takes 25 years for the average Toronto family to save up for a down payment and the average mortgage has increased from $1,400 to $3,300, a surge of more than 100% during the 8 years of Trudeau’s administration.

After wide criticism, legislatures in British Columbia (BC) and Ontario (ON) have intervened to expedite newcomers’ integration into the workforce by eliminating redundant language tests and Canadian work experience prerequisites. The Ontario government has proposed legislation to prohibit employers from demanding Canadian work experience in job postings or application forms, aiming to ensure fairer opportunities for qualified candidates. The “Working for Workers” bill entails various provisions such as disclosing salary ranges in job postings, banning non-disclosure agreements related to workplace misconduct, and enhancing benefits for injured workers. Previously, specific trades required a minimum of one year of Canadian work experience for licensing, a criterion now removed for over 30 non-health-care occupations, allowing internationally-trained workers to obtain licences without prior Canadian work experience. The bill further extends eligibility for the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP), allowing international students in one-year college graduate certificate programs to apply.

According to the Canadian authorities, the families who arrived on Wednesday will be resettled in 31 communities across the country, including in major cities such as Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver. However, it is unclear how many more refugees are in Pakistan awaiting resettlement to Canada.