More Afghan interpreters settle in Canada

A special program to offer a new life in Canada to people who acted as interpreters for Canadian soldiers and diplomats in Afghanistan — sometimes at the risk of their lives — has brought in nearly double the numbers.

About 800 in total given immigration approval

A special program to offer a new life in Canada to people who acted as interpreters for Canadian soldiers and diplomats in Afghanistan — sometimes at the risk of their lives — has brought in nearly double the numbers expected.

Officials had planned for only 450 Afghans to eventually make the move when they began a special immigration program for interpreters and their families in 2009.

With Canada's combat mission ended and a year after the program stopped accepting applications, around 800 former interpreters and their families are now living across the country.

Afghanistan interpreter Ghulam Wali Noori is shown at his home in Ottawa. As an interpreter working with the Canadian military, he was a prime target of insurgents. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The original estimate was based on consultations with the military and Foreign Affairs Department about the number of interpreters or cultural advisers used by soldiers and diplomats in Kandahar, says Citizenship and Immigration.

It's unclear how many there actually were over the five years of fighting; the military has said it had more than 6,000 requests for their services.

'Terps, as they were known, were the eyes, ears and mouths for soldiers on the battlefield and diplomats in the meeting rooms of Afghanistan.

In addition to translating, they helped teach Canadians the culture and customs of the country and many were often called upon to help shore up the often-strained relationships between soldiers and locals.

But the work was risky. Between 2006 and 2011, at least six interpreters were killed alongside Canadian soldiers and many others wounded.

The risk followed them off the fighting fields and many interpreters reported being followed or harassed by the Taliban because they helped the Canadians.

Some found themselves ostracized by their families and friends, lest the Taliban come after them as well.

Allied countries set up special programs to help endangered workers leave Afghanistan as militaries began pulling out and Canada chose to follow suit in 2009, designing a policy to fast-track their entry as permanent residents.

It required applicants to have worked for 12 months for the Canadian government between 2007 and 2011 and to show their lives were in danger as a result.

The deadlines were controversial. Some of the bloodiest days of fighting in Kandahar were in 2006, effectively cutting off interpreters who worked only during that time period from access to the program.

'Some applicants have chosen to exacerbate the risks they claim to face by going to the press with their stories'—Government briefing note

Altogether, there were 622 applicants for the program, which was open to interpreters as well as Afghans who were injured while working for the Canadian government in Kandahar.

Initially, the government only accepted a fraction of cases, but earlier this year the prime minister ordered a review of hundreds of rejected applications.

Many had been turned down because officials felt interpreters hadn't adequately proved they faced extraordinary risk due to their work or had overstated their risks.

"Some applicants have chosen to exacerbate the risks they claim to face by going to the press with their stories," said a September 2011 briefing note on the policy obtained under the Access to Information Act.

The review included three cases highlighted in the media, the briefing note said.

Nearly 50 per cent of applications rejected

Ultimately, about half of the applications were rejected, but a total of 348 people were accepted into the program along with their spouses and children.

All but 50 have now settled in Canada, with most living in Toronto or Ottawa.

Others whose cases didn't meet certain criteria under the program were also accepted into Canada under other immigration policies, including humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

"For example, one case pertained to an individual who converted to Christianity while working with Canadians and it was not clear whether his elevated risks derived from his work for us or from the conversion," read a November 2011 memo, obtained under access.

Those who came to Canada include two women, as well as the spouse of an interpreter reportedly killed by the Taliban because of his work with Canadians.

Not all of the Afghans who came to Canada have stayed. Access documents reveal that a handful returned to Afghanistan.

"We are aware of several people returning to Afghanistan to work there," Citizenship and Immigration spokesman Remi Lariviere said in an e-mail.

"Since Canada does not and cannot restrict a person's return to his/her homeland, or anywhere for that matter, it is up to the individual whether he or she is prepared to take such risks."

The fact that some Afghans went home after claiming their lives were at risk doesn't appear to have overly alarmed officials.

In a briefing note, they say they'll use the experience to strengthen similar programs in the future but the measures they were considering were censored from the documents.

No immigration program for new mission

While the combat mission in Kandahar ended in 2011, a contingent of Canadian soldiers will remain in Afghanistan training national security forces until 2014.

They've hired fewer than 10 interpreters to work with them, though they have access to a large pool if they need them, said a spokesperson for the Defence Department.

While the United Kingdom is examining programs to protect former Afghan employees after 2014, the Canadian government has no such plan.

In March 2011, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was given two options for the policy, a briefing note said. The first was to let the program end as planned.

"There is no obligation to create a new immigration program for those who will support the new mission," the briefing note said.

The second option was censored under provisions of access law that apply to advice to ministers, but Kenney signed off on the first option.

The briefing notes say the department feels it has done the best it could.

"We believe all eligible applicants who may be or may have been at risk because of their work in support of Canada's mission in Kandahar have had amply opportunity to submit an application for consideration under this program."