OTTAWA – Former Afghan interpreters now living in Canada are pleading for the federal government to help extended family members stuck in Afghanistan as the Taliban continues its march across the country.
The former interpreters are 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.
“If they cannot get their hands on you, they will get your brother, they will get your sister, they will get your parents to punish you wherever you are because they cannot get their hands on you,” said Khan, who arrived in Canada in 2012. His full name is not being disclosed to protect his family’s safety.
The Liberal government announced two weeks ago that it would expedite the resettlement of possibly thousands of Afghans who worked with Canada as interpreters, cultural advisers and support staff since 2001, as well as their families.
But the effort has been plagued by questions and controversy, including whether the extended families of those like Khan’s who previously came to Canada are eligible for assistance.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino acknowledged during a news conference last month the threat the Taliban poses to the families of interpreters already resettled in Canada, and invited anyone who believed their relatives could be eligible for help to contact his office.
Khan said he did reach out to Mendicino’s office to see about helping his parents and siblings but was directed to a bureaucrat at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
“I called the IRCC,” Khan said. “They were like: `We don’t have any details regarding this. So, if we don’t have anything, we can’t give you anything. This is how far I went.”
There are also concerns that the government is taking a case-by-case approach to applications rather than laying out specific criteria to ensure everyone knows who is eligible for resettlement, and why.
“We don’t want to be individual cases,” said Noori, another former interpreter who fled for Canada under a previous program and is now trying to get his parents and nine siblings out of Afghanistan. “We want a collective policy for all of us.”
Mendicino’s office said Sunday the government is taking “an inclusive approach” to deciding who will be allowed to come to Canada.
“We have also broadened the definition of family to be more inclusive and compassionate to include de facto dependents (who may or may not be related) and who do not otherwise meet the definition of family under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” spokeswoman Emilie Savard said in an email.
“Lives hang in the balance, which is why we’re taking action to support the Afghans who supported Canada, and offer them a future in this country. Canada will do the right thing for those who did so much for us.”
Several former interpreters are nonetheless planning a rally on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to draw attention to their cause and pressure the government into helping their extended family members.
A similar rally was held in Vancouver last week, which organizers said drew dozens of former interpreters, Canadian military veterans and family members who are worried about friends and loved ones back in Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, if you are employed by someone like the Canadian Forces, then your whole family is in danger because of you,” Noori said. “If the terrorists cannot reach you to harm you, they can harm you in another way by killing your father, your brother.”
Those concerns have only grown in intensity as the Taliban has continued to capture large swaths of territory following the sudden withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in recent weeks.
The fact the U.S. over the weekend welcomed its first planeload of former interpreters onto American soil has also ratcheted up the frustration and confusion surrounding Canada’s own efforts.
That confusion was exacerbated last week by word anyone wanting to apply had only 72 hours. That narrow window was later retracted following an outcry from former interpreters and veterans.
Retired corporal Tim Laidler, who is now executive director of the Institute for Veterans Education and Transition at the University of British Columbia, said the lack of information and clarity has left people in Canada and Afghanistan unsure what to do.
“This is a crisis, there’s people’s lives at risk and there’s no time for half-baked plans,” said Laidler, who ran for the Conservatives in the 2015 federal election.
“If you’re going to say `Contact my office,’ you need to have a plan and the staff in place to actually follow through on that. This confusion is causing people to lose faith in the process and the system, and ultimately I think it’s going to cost lives.”