OTTAWA — Fear and frustration are mounting over the scope and pace of Ottawa’s plan to rescue potentially thousands of Afghans from the threat of Taliban retaliation for their past associations with Canada.
The Liberal government announced last month that immigration officials would expedite the resettlement of Afghans who had worked with Canada as interpreters, cultural advisers and support staff since 2001, as well as their families.
The announcement followed weeks of pressure from Canadian veterans and grassroots groups such as Afghan-Canadian Interpreters, which has been in direct contact with hundreds of people desperate to escape to Canada.
Yet despite those direct contacts and the urgency of the situation, Afghan-Canadian Interpreters director Wendy Long says Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has largely cut out her group and others.
That has manifested in the department’s refusal to consult with them — or accept hundreds of applications with supporting documentation compiled by the group over the past eight weeks and verified with help fromthe Canadian Armed Forces, which has been working with her organization.
“I am disappointed that the IRCC has not wanted to sit at the table,” Long said. “The data that we have collected … is sitting in over 250 folders, and would be invaluable to at least get these 250 people off the ground.”
Immigration officials have also declined to provide such groups with information that would help them assist Afghans with the application process.
Immigration officials have instead set out to recreate the work that Afghan-Canadian Interpreters and others have already done, Long said. That includes having Afghans fill out new application forms and send the same supporting documentation.
Not only has that caused confusion back in Afghanistan, Long said, it has also led to unnecessary — and potentially deadly — delays.
“Let's get these people out and we can worry about the paperwork later,” Long said. “As long as they are properly identified and vetted by our CAF, let's just get them out.”
With the Taliban threat growing every day, Long specifically called on IRCC to appoint a liaison to work with veterans and advocacy groups to speed up the rescue mission.
“Having an open dialogue with IRCC with a point person can only help speed up the process and the dissemination of intel on the ground because we are intimately acquainted with what's going on on the ground,” she said.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office did not immediately respond to questions.
Meanwhile, dozens of former Afghan interpreters rallied on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, calling on the federal government to bring their extended family members stuck in Afghanistan to Canada.
The former interpreters were among about 800 Afghans resettled under two different programs between 2008 and 2012 who say their previous work with Canada has left parents and siblings back home at risk of Taliban reprisals.
The government says it will be flexible in deciding who is eligible for assistance, but veterans and former interpreters say the current plan excludes parents, siblings and most adult children as well as Afghans who have fled to neighbouring countries.
One of those at Tuesday’s rally was Ahmed Shoaib, who said he worked as an interpreter for the Canadian military and diplomats in Kandahar between 2007 and 2011 and is now worried about his brother, sister and mother back home.
"The only reason that they are suffering is because of us working in support of the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Foreign Affairs," Shoaib said, adding his siblings and mother recently fled their homes to a part of Afghanistan not yet in Taliban hands.
"We do need the government to help us because when we were in Afghanistan we put our lives at risk to help the Canadian Forces … Just because of us, our families' lives are at risk, too."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Liberal government to expand eligibility for Afghans hoping for resettlement in Canada to include the extended families of interpreters and staff who supported coalition forces.
“There are a lot of people in Afghanistan that need help and that helped out Canadians and that should qualify for support, should qualify for resettlement to Canada,” Singh said during a news conference in Toronto.
“I think we need to be very broad in our understanding of the people that have been threatened. If an interpreter risked their life and now their families’ lives are at risk, we’ve got a responsibility to support them now.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also weighed in with calls for a timeline on when rescue flights will start to arrive in Canada.
"Afghan interpreters, cultural advisers, support staff, and their families are at risk of persecution and even death because they put themselves in harm's way to help our country,” O’Toole said in a statement.
“Justin Trudeau must immediately provide a comprehensive plan with a clear timeline for these Afghans and their families seeking refuge in Canada."
The plan to resettle Afghan interpreters has been plagued with problems and controversy since it was unveiled on July 23, with the government backing off an initial 72-hour application timeline days before the email address for applications crashed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.
— With files from Maan Alhmidi and Christopher Reynolds
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press