Canada is set to open its doors to hundreds of Afghans who face life-threatening risks after having worked with our military and diplomats, The Canadian Press has learned.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Thursday he's putting the final touches on a policy to provide safe haven to Afghans endangered by their association with Canada.
Unlike other NATO countries, Canada has no policy on humanitarian immigration for local staff — but that's about to change.
Afghans who have been severely injured working with the Canadian military or who can prove they face threats will be eligible for fast-track entry.
The first of those ex-employees and their immediate relatives could arrive within months.
The policy goes much further than the one initially considered by the Harper government, which last year said it would examine possible ways to bring over severely injured interpreters only.
The new program will be open to anyone with 12 months' service to the Canadian mission, medical and security checks, and a recommendation letter from a senior soldier or diplomat.
Kenney said his first preference is for them to resettle in safer parts of Afghanistan, because the last thing policy-makers want is an exodus of educated, liberal, English-speaking people from that country.
"Those kind of people are going to have to play a central role in the long-term construction of a stable and democratic Afghanistan," Kenney said in an interview.
"But in particular circumstances where we feel that a person's safety will be jeopardized by staying in the country, the door will be open to Canada .… "I think Canadians would be proud to help provide refuge to those who have helped our forces, aid personnel and diplomats."
Kenney said he expects hundreds of Afghan employees to benefit from the program, along with their immediate families.
Insurgents have gone to gruesome lengths to make an example of locals who work with NATO. In one case, several interpreters' bodies were strung up in a public square and left to rot there for weeks as a lesson to anyone else thinking of helping the foreigners.
Government officials said the program is inspired by similar ones in the United States, Britain, Australia and Denmark.
No strain on resources
Officials said they would receive many of the same services as refugees: income support for 12 months, health benefits and help preparing a CV and finding work.
The program is to be funded by the existing budget at Citizenship and Immigration.
They denied the Afghans would strain federal resources, saying they represent a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of refugee claimants Canada receives annually. And unlike many others who come here, they noted, the Afghan workers are all fluent in at least one of Canada's official languages.
An interpreter nicknamed Junior, who asked that his real name not be used for his and his family's safety, said he was overjoyed by the news.
He lost both legs in a rocket attack on Canadian troops three years ago and has continued working as a translator and cultural adviser on the provincial reconstruction base. For now, Junior earns $1,250 a month — a lavish sum by Afghan standards.
But as a legless man in a town without sidewalks or wheelchair access, he says he has no future job prospects in Kandahar. He has also received numerous death threats by telephone.
Junior said he plans to move his family to Toronto or Ottawa, where he hopes to work as an adviser on Pashtun culture to the Canadian government, military and policy analysts.
No new legislation required
"There are many different jobs that we could do because we are very educated people," said Junior, who learned English as a teenager at a private school.
He and his peers face a far different fate, he says, if Canada leaves them behind in Afghanistan.
"If the (security) situation stays the same, it's clear like sky: We will all be cut into parts," said Junior.
"That's what's going to happen to the people who worked for the coalition forces, who worked to make Afghanistan a better place to live in. If they catch us, that will happen."
The new policy does not require legislation. The minister will use his power under Section 25 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to let the Afghans into the country, and seek cabinet approval for some of the settlement services.
So there will be no vote in the House of Commons on the new policy. But any vote would have been moot, because the opposition had already expressed its support months ago.
New Democrats said it was shameful that Canada lacked such a program, while its allies had one. The party applauded the move.
"It's the least we can do for people who have risked their lives working with the Canadian military," said immigration critic Olivia Chow. "It's about time."