Tight deadlines, complicated forms undermining Canada's assistance for Afghan interpreters, advocates say
OTTAWA -- After new help was announced by the federal government for Afghan interpreters under threat from the Taliban, advocates are crying foul over tight deadlines and complicated English-language forms.
Responding to news on Wednesday that the government is giving those who helped Canadian military on the frontlines only three days to gather documents and complete the laborious application process to Canada, Canadian veteran Corey Shelson said it goes against their promise to efficiently and thoughtfully extract these individuals.
“The plan sounded good. We knew the devil would be in the details and as of this morning we started seeing the emails that were coming out of the immigration office to interpreters that are stranded and the requirements and the deadlines are completely unreasonable,” he said in an interview with CTV National News.
“They are nowhere in line with what they called the inclusive and flexible special immigration policy they announced Friday.”
Shelson served with the Canadian Armed Forces and spent eight months in Kandahar.
In a joint press conference last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino unveiled the "special immigration measures" intended to help Afghan interpreters, those engaged with the Canadian Embassy and their families.
“We will not leave them behind. Lives hang in the balance here, which is why we’re taking timely and decisive action. Canada will do right by those who did right by us,” Mendicino told reporters on Friday, adding that he expects arrivals into Canada “very shortly.”
Interpreters in Afghanistan are at risk because they helped Canadians fight against the Taliban. With the Taliban gaining ground in the country, interpreters are scared for their safety.
“When Canadian soldiers were in Afghanistan, they depended on locals in order to keep them safe, as well as to assess the basics of their mission. This included everything from translation and cultural support, to cooking, to cleaning, to trade support, general maintenance, you name it. And because these people helped Canada, they are now at risk as the Taliban is re-taking the country,” Andrew Rusk, co-founder of advocacy group Not Left Behind, told CTV News in an interview.
Rusk’s sister-in-law, Capt. Nichola Goddard, was the first Canadian Forces woman to die in battle in Afghanistan -- she was killed in 2006.
The Afghans who assisted Canadian soldiers and their families are now being threatened by the Taliban, Rusk said.
“We're hearing a lot of reports of interpreters being threatened directly with violence, as well as their families being threatened directly with violence.”
The ministers didn’t provide specifics about numbers, timelines, flight details, or logistical processes, citing potential threats to security.
Shelson said Ottawa has actually created a barrier to exit, as opposed to a path to safe refuge.
“People who are trying to get out of there like cleaning staff, security guards, drivers, many of them don’t speak English so all of the instructions sent by the immigration office were in English, nothing was translated,” he said.
The second issue, he said is internet connection – many of the individuals don’t have access to high-speed internet to download the necessary documents or simply don’t have a computer at all.
“I know lots of Canadians that speak English that have regular access to the internet that wouldn't be able to complete those forms on time, let alone people that are literally hiding for their lives in a war-torn country,” said Rusk.
A spokesperson for the minister of Immigraion, Refugees and Citizenship Canada clarified that the 72-hour deadline is not firm and was meant to reflect the urgency of the situation.
"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. Applications received outside of that window will still be processed," Émilie Simard said in a statement made to CTV News.
Simard added that the exact number of people being helped is not yet known but that they expect thousands to benefit. Due to safety and privacy concerns they could not confirm when and how Afghan interpreters would be brought to Canada.
The Taliban claims it now controls about 80 per cent of Afghanistan after the U.S. began extracting its military forces – a move U.S. President Joe Biden has announced will be complete by Aug. 31.
Rusk says that there needs to be immediate action to help Afghans who are being targeted, adding other countries have spoken out about this and it’s time for Canada to step up.
“The U.S. spoke out on this months ago. The U.K. spoke out on this weeks ago. [Canada] spoke out on this Friday, but we still haven’t responded with a plan that is actively helping the people on the ground,” he said.
A previous special immigration measure for Afghans who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces settled more than 800 Afghan nationals and their families in Canada from 2009 to 2011 and a revised version of that program began in 2012.
Back then, interpreters needed 12 months of service between 2007 and 2011, as well as proof that their lives were in danger.
Rusk knows that his sister-in-law wouldn’t leave anyone behind, especially those that risked their lives to help Canadians, and would want Canada to take action.
“Nichola always took care of her men, and I think she'll be really disappointed that we're not doing the same right now."
With files from CTV National News Senior Political Correspondent Glen McGregor