Interpreters are fleeing Afghanistan. What’s happened and how Canada is helping

Click to play video: 'Afghan interpreters face death threats from Taliban after U.S. troops leave'
Afghan interpreters face death threats from Taliban after U.S. troops leave
WATCH: Afghan interpreters face death threats from Taliban after U.S. troops leave – Jun 3, 2021

Interpreters are fleeing Afghanistan in droves as the Taliban move to seize provincial capitals, having already captured large swaths of land and key border crossing areas across the region.

An estimated “49,000 people have been displaced” since the Taliban increased their offensive, including 29,400 children, the latest figures from the international organization Save The Children showed. Meanwhile, the United States and Afghan airstrikes rain down on Taliban targets as Afghanistan forces work to reclaim taken territory.

But why? And what is Canada doing to help?

How did we get here?

The Taliban have been quietly rapidly regaining their territory since the U.S. decided to put an end to its longest war — a 20-year mission to dismantle al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power — by pulling its troops out of Afghanistan.

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U.S. President Joe Biden made the announcement in April, saying that every last soldier stationed in Afghanistan would be home by Sept. 11.

As the U.S. and NATO rein in their troops, the Taliban have been making advances in Afghanistan, prompting an international response. Afghan citizens who served or helped the Canadian and American governments take down the Taliban government in Kabul during the war in 2001 — many of whom acted as interpreters — are now facing death and torture.

Media reports detail the Taliban going “door-by-door” to hunt for interpreters as they descend on urban centres.

Canada withdrew from Afghanistan in 2011, but has continued to send aid to the country as the U.S. pulls out its troops. The U.S. has said that its soldiers will not be returning to Afghanistan, but that it will continue to help by assisting in peace talks and helping train Afghanistan’s military.

Click to play video: 'Former Afghan interpreters call for Canada to help extended families'
Former Afghan interpreters call for Canada to help extended families

What is Canada doing to help interpreters?

The federal government unveiled a new, expedited “path to protection” on July 23 for Afghans who supported Canadian troops as interpreters, cultural advisers or support staff, as well as their families. But the plan to resettle Afghan interpreters has been plagued with problems and controversy, with the government backing off an initial 72-hour application timeline days before the email address for applications crashed.

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Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday that Afghan refugees have started to arrive in Canada. The first group landed in Toronto on Wednesday, and more planes carrying Afghans who contributed to Canada’s mission are expected to arrive in the next days and weeks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “very pleased” to see that first plane arrive.

“It was very emotional for all of us to see people there who had been there to support Canada and support Canadians come to their new homes and come to safety,” he said at an unrelated news conference Thursday.

Mendicino did not share details on how many Afghan refugees landed in Canada yesterday and their whereabouts, nor those who will arrive later. He said it is to protect the evacuees and the security of the operation.

Mendicino said they will be financially supported by the government for one year, including through income support and language training.

He said Canada eventually hopes to resettle several thousand Afghans who qualify, adding that the government wants to get this operation done quickly because the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating quickly.

Click to play video: 'Mendicino says feds will ‘fully support’ Afghan refugees for one year'
Mendicino says feds will ‘fully support’ Afghan refugees for one year

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said in an emailed statement that some refugees arrived on Tuesday, adding that more flights will be arriving in the coming days and weeks.

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To protect the safety of those being evacuated from Afghanistan, the IRCC said: “further operational details,” such as information on where Afghans will be resettled in Canada, will not be released.

The department said settlement organizations will help new refugees find “permanent housing, language training, a job and connections with established immigrants and Canadians and provide them with the information that they need about life in Canada, and the community in which they will settle.”

But some are arguing that the IRCC is not doing enough for the families of Afghan interpreters who helped Canada during the war.

Lawmakers including Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh have demanded the federal government widen the path’s scope, saying the program needs to include extended family members of eligible Afghans who are currently excluded, including siblings, parents and most adult children who have fled to neighbouring countries.

Khan, a former interpreter with coalition forces and the Canadian Army in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2012, told the Canadian Press his father was assassinated in 2009 “because of my job.” His full name is not being disclosed for security reasons.

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

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According to Mendicino’s office, the IRCC has broadened the program 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.”

Despite this, many individuals and organizations say they’ve been left out.

Afghan-Canadian Interpreters director Wendy Long told CP the IRCC has refused to work with her organization or accept hundreds of applications with supporting documentation compiled by the group over the past eight weeks and verified with help from the Canadian Armed Forces.

“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.”

Click to play video: 'Mendicino talks logistics of resettlement plan for Afghan interpreters, advisors'
Mendicino talks logistics of resettlement plan for Afghan interpreters, advisors

What about other countries?

Meanwhile, pressure has been mounting among Western countries to speed up their own refugee programs.

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“While some of these linguists have found refuge via national programs, countless others have been waiting years in vain for a protective visa. Considered traitors and fearing retaliation for their collaboration, they have either gone into hiding at home or fled abroad,” the International Association of Conference Interpreters wrote in an open letter to Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general.

“There is now little time left to save them.”

The expedition of Afghan interpreters has already begun in the U.S., as the Biden administration works to expand the number of Afghan citizens being let into the country.

Click to play video: 'Feds say they’re working on bringing Afghanistan interpreters back to Canada'
Feds say they’re working on bringing Afghanistan interpreters back to Canada

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said it would begin ramping up efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghan citizens, widening its scope of eligible refugees to include current and former employees of U.S.-based news organizations, U.S.-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive U.S. funding.

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U.S. Congress also approved legislation that will allocate $500 million in funding for 8,000 visas as part of the Afghan visa program on July 29. A total of 2,500 Afghan citizens who qualified for special visas, many of whom served as translators or did other work for U.S. troops or diplomats, are expected to arrive in the U.S. in the coming days.

The United Kingdom has also moved to expedite the resettlement of Afghan staff who served the British government.

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) was announced in June. In a letter of guidance from the U.K. government, officials said the program offers “priority relocation” to any at-risk Afghan staff “regardless of their employment status, rank or role, or length of time served.” It adds that successful applicants will receive a five-year visa, after which they can apply for permanent residency. It will remain open “indefinitely.”

— with files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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