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Veterans, Afghan interpreters demand clarity, help as Taliban threat looms larger

OTTAWA — Afghan interpreters and Canadian veterans say the Immigration Department is failing Afghans who worked with Canada in the war-torn country, despite an announcement last week to fast-track their resettlement.

OTTAWA — Afghan interpreters and Canadian veterans say the Immigration Department is failing Afghans who worked with Canada in the war-torn country, despite an announcement last week to fast-track their resettlement.

Rahim, who worked as an interpreter with Canadian soldiers via NATO in 2016-17 and whose full name is not being disclosed for safety reasons, says Taliban fighters burned his father's home to the ground on Monday in punishment for his service to coalition forces.

He is staying with relatives in Afghanistan and, like two other former interpreters The Canadian Press spoke with who are already in Canada, fears for the safety of his extended family as the Taliban seizes swaths of the country.

"It is also very dangerous for them to live here," Rahim said of his parents, sister-in-law and four nephews and nieces aged 11 to 23.

"If they capture any person of my family, I am sure they will get revenge on them."

Government officials have told him he must provide documentation of the destroyed home to prove his parents are under threat, he said, but the property is in a district now controlled by the Taliban and effectively inaccessible to those on the run.

On Wednesday the Immigration Department released an application form to be filled out within 72 hours, but veterans groups say it is not clear whether applicants' siblings, parents and extended family members under threat from the Taliban will be eligible for resettlement.

However, in an email sent to interpreters and obtained by The Canadian Press, the federal government said the program applies only to "Afghans who were integral to Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan" and their family members.

Family members are defined as a spouse or common-law partner, child aged 21 or younger, or an adult child who "has depended substantially on the financial support of the parent since before attaining the age of 22."

"That’s just not how the Taliban is drawing lines on who’s included versus who's not," said Andrew Rusk, co-founder of advocacy group Not Left Behind.

“When you start thinking about these restrictions, these timelines and these barriers, you’re putting a significant volume of lives at risk. And the moral leadership isn’t coming from the government right now; it’s coming from the veteran community, and that doesn’t feel right," said Rusk, whose sister was Canada's first female soldier to die in combat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday the government's priority remains helping Afghan staff and their immediate families.

"But I can highlight at the same time that we are continuing to expand the family reunification programs available to all immigrants and permanent residents to Canada, and this is something that we will continue to look at," he told reporters in St. John's, N.L.

Robin Rickards, a veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010, said he and other current and former soldiers have been swamped with emails and phone calls for help with the newly released application from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Published in English, it requires up to 10 different document scans and demands Adobe Acrobat in a country with low literacy rates and patchy internet service.

"We are literally drowning," Rickards said. "Had they contacted any of the individuals who were involved with this before they launched this, we could have guided them on how to structure an orderly process that wouldn't have created chaos on the ground."

The 72-hour application timeline is not a "firm" one and submissions outside that window will still be processed, said Émilie Simard, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

"The requested response time is a reflection of the urgency on the ground to get as many applications as possible as quickly as possible so that we can get people to safety," she said in an email.

"We have also engaged support staff to assist clients with language barriers in submitting their applications and requested documentation ... This policy was developed to be as inclusive as possible." 

The new immigration measures, first rolled out Friday by a trio of cabinet ministers, followed growing concern and frustration within Canada's veterans' community after the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in recent weeks emboldened the Taliban to ramp up its offensive.

The freshly captured territory includes parts of the southern province of Kandahar, where the Canadian military spent the longest amount of time during its 13-year mission in the country and fought its bloodiest battles since the Korean War.

Now the veterans say those Afghans who supported them as well as their families are facing the threat of retribution as the Taliban expands its reach and looks to exact revenge on collaborators.

"We are right now living in a hell that may be from this world, that may be from another world," said Noori, who arrived in Canada in 2010 after working as an interpreter for the Canadian Armed Forces between 2006 and 2009.

Three of his cousins and an uncle were assassinated by Taliban militants, he said. His parents, four brothers and five sisters are still in Afghanistan, but none would be eligible to join him in Canada under the new measures.

Noori, whose full name is not being disclosed for security reasons, said he hasn't been able to sleep properly since a recent Taliban attack on a police checkpoint fewer than 100 metres from his family's home.

"It was all night. My family couldn’t get out. They were just begging to God for their protection. But no one could go there to help protect them," he said.

“The Taliban knows our family supported the Canadian Forces."

The immigration minister said Friday the government already has teams on the ground working to identify people who are at risk for having worked with Canada, and that immigration officials will fast-track applications for asylum from the estimated “several thousand” who qualify. 

Mendicino also encouraged Afghans now living in Canada to reach out to his office directly if they feel their families back at home are at risk and eligible.

Former interpreters say they've done just that, but have been met by answering machines, automated email responses and a lack of clarity on criteria when a human did pick up the phone.

Khan, a former interpreter with coalition forces and the Canadian Army in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2012, said his father was assassinated in 2009 "because of my job."

“They will kill my father, they will kill my brothers, they will kill any member of my family if they cannot get to me."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press