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Executive director's corner / Canada must do more to assist academics and trade unionists at risk

Executive director's corner / Canada must do more to assist academics and trade unionists at risk

By David Robinson

In November 2021, a representative of the Afghan University Professor’s Union (AUPU) addressed CAUT Council, just three months after the Taliban had regained control of the country. In an emotional speech, he described how the Taliban government had moved quickly to replace senior administrators with political appointees, fire critics in the universities, and threaten the AUPU leadership.

Since then, the crackdown on the country’s academic community has intensified with the dissolution of the union and the announcement that women would no longer be permitted to attend university — a direct violation of international human rights.

After NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan, Canada pledged to accept 40,000 humanitarian refugees. While the government says it has resettled just over 25,000 Afghans to date, many more languish in fear and uncertainty, including hundreds of vulnerable academics. Meanwhile, Canada’s special humanitarian program for at-risk Afghans, while laudable, does not specifically include professors or trade union leaders despite their targeting by Taliban security forces.

CAUT, through its Refugee Foundation, has been doing what we can to assist academic and trade union colleagues. We are helping sponsor one union leader and her family to resettle in Canada, but dozens of others have also reached out to us for urgent assistance. The Canadian government has, unfortunately, done little to help.

Canada has a mixed track record of supporting academic refugees. Between 1933 and 1941, little was done to assist academics to flee German-occupied Europe. During the Cold War, Canada helped academics from Hungary and Czechoslovakia following the Soviet Union’s crackdown on dissident movements. For instance, a special grant program was established for universities who hired Czech and Slovak professors. But when the government of Chile was overthrown in 1973, Canadian officials proceeded cautiously, with the ambassador to Chile, Andrew Ross, even defending the military coup and claiming that Chilean professors who sought asylum in Canada, were leftist “riff-raff.”

In a letter to Secretary of State Mitchell Sharp at the time, CAUT’s executive secretary urged the government to establish a program for Chilean academics modelled on the one created for Czech and Slovak professors.

The government continued to drag its heels on the matter until a fact-finding mission to Chile found that nearly every academic in the country reported knowing someone who had been harassed, tortured, imprisoned or killed at the hands of the military authorities. Continuing reports of human rights abuses and public pressure finally moved Ottawa to create a special program for Chilean academic refugees.

Given the dire situation facing our colleagues in Afghanistan today, the government of Canada urgently needs to do more to assist academics and trade unionists who are at immediate risk of arrest and death. As history has shown, refugee programs for at-risk academics have been offered before. All that is needed now is the political will.


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