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Canada sought use of European Union compound in Kabul for fingerprinting, reneged

An aerial view of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

OTTAWA — Canada requested use of the European Union's compound in Kabul to help with tasks such as fingerprinting for those fleeing Afghanistan, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly made the request on Jan. 20, 2022, according to documents obtained through an access-to-information request.

"Minister Joly asked EU High Representative (Josep) Borrell about the possibility for Canada to co-locate with the EU in Kabul, in order to conduct biometric screening from their premises," reads a July 2022 briefing note.

The document says the EU replied in early April 2022, offering space for two Canadian officials in the compound "on the condition that biometric screening be performed in a third location managed by the Government of Canada."

It notes that one month later, senior bureaucrats for Global Affairs Canada "determined that it would be very difficult to proceed with the EU offer."

That may be because there are issues for Afghans trying to access the Kabul compound since the Taliban takeover.

But as of June 2022, the briefing note states "we are still assessing the legal, duty-of-care and operational implications of this offer," adding there are "significant legal constraints that limit Canada's ability to re-establish any kind of presence in Kabul."

The Department of Global Affairs would not say whether it ended up stationing anybody at the EU compound.

"We do not discuss operational details of our missions abroad for security reasons," spokeswoman Patricia Skinner wrote.

"Canada remains committed to Afghanistan and the Afghan people, and we will continue to do all that we can to support them."

The EU delegation in Ottawa suggested the idea is no longer on the table.

"Following Canada's request, the possibility of co-locating Canadian officials in the premises of the EU Mission in Kabul for a limited period was indeed considered, but this did not materialize in the end," reads a provided statement.

The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship would not say if Ottawa ended up declining theoffer.

"For operational security reasons, we are unable to provide specific information," wrote spokesman Matthew Krupovich.

He said the government's efforts to resettle people fleeing the country have been hindered by entry and exit requirements by both the Taliban and neighbouring countries.

"Canada's lack of military, diplomatic and overall presence in Afghanistan has also presented challenges in how we collect and verify the information of applicants who remain in their country, but Canada continues to explore options."

Wendy Cukier, co-founder of Lifeline Afghanistan, said many Afghans who have made it to countries like Canada have relatives in hiding back home whom they're "desperate to get out," but they have no way of doing so.

"We need some way to on the one hand facilitate people coming to Canada, and on the other hand ensure that we're not creating security risks," said Cukier, whose group seeks to resettle Afghans and help them integrate.

"Canada has to be concerned about putting its people in danger, and (it might) also pose a risk to local residents because if they were seen approaching the (compound), they would become targets."

Cukier, an entrepreneurship professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, said it's helpful Ottawa has been looking at ways to navigate red tape. 

But she argued that Ottawa could speed up the processing of claims by removing the requirement for a formal assessment of refugee status for Afghans, the way it did for Syrians in 2015.

"The principle of trying to figure out a mechanism that doesn't legitimize the Taliban regime, but at the same time allows us to to provide the support we need, is very important."

Last fall, media reports revealed Canada had been in regular talks with the Taliban, starting just weeks after it took over Afghanistan in August 2021.

The Trudeau government insisted it will not recognize the Taliban as the country's government, but said Canadian diplomats joined Western peers in discussions with Taliban officials in Qatar in order to advocate for girls' education.

Some regional experts have proposed that Western allies launch a multi-country representative office in lieu of formal embassies in Afghanistan, to keep track of the human rights situation in the country.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons is set to have its final vote Monday on a bill to unlock humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, and Senate hearings on the legislation are scheduled for that evening.

Bill C-41 seeks to amend Canada's terrorism laws, which currently bar Canadian aid workers from paying taxes for any labour or goods in Afghanistan. Doing so could currently lead to prosecution for monetary support of the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group under Canadian law.

The bill would allow aid groups to apply to Ottawa for exemptions to such prosecution. 

And the Liberals have amended the bill to fit NDP and Conservative proposals that seek to clarify Ottawa's role in designating the regions that would require this approval, the reporting around the bill and the ability to appeal a rejection.

The bill also contains a clarification to draw a distinction between humanitarian workers, who respond to crises and already have international protection, and development workers, who seek long-term progress such as building schools.

The NDP say the bill still doesn't go far enough in preventing the possibility that humanitarian workers are criminalized.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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