Interpreters who fled Afghanistan consider dangerous trip home to apply for refugee status in Canada
Applicants must be living in Afghanistan to be eligible for Ottawa’s special immigration mission
Some Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to flee the country are considering a dangerous new journey back into Afghanistan in the hopes of qualifying for resettlement in Canada.
Ottawa has opened a special immigration pathway to help interpreters and other Afghans who worked with the Canadian military to resettle in Canada as government-assisted refugees.
The first flight carrying Afghan workers landed in Canada on Wednesday. Ottawa says more will be arriving in the coming days and weeks.
But to be eligible for the program, applicants have to be living in Afghanistan. Former interpreters and their Canadian advocates say that leaves out a number of workers who already have fled to neighbouring countries.
For people in that situation, returning to Afghanistan is an increasingly dangerous proposition. The resurgent Taliban reportedly has been threatening Afghans who once worked alongside Canada and its allies.
"I'm really scared," said one former interpreter who worked for the Canadian military for 11 months in 2010 and 2011.
He returned to Afghanistan last week, after having fled illegally to Turkey in January. CBC News is protecting his identity and location due to safety concerns.
Ottawa rushing the process, former interpreter says
The former interpreter said he tried to apply for the special resettlement program from Turkey before finding out he wasn't eligible because he was not in Afghanistan. He's applied since but doesn't know yet if he'll be accepted.
He said government messages stressing the program's tight timeline convinced him to return. Applicants were told initially they would have only three days to submit their documents.
"The prime minister said this process will be collected really fast, you know, will end very fast," he told CBC News. "That's why they forced me, you know, indirectly. If you want to go to Canada, you have to be in Afghanistan."
He said his return to Afghanistan exposed him to great risk.
"Every cell of my body would be saying to me, 'If the Taliban catches you, you will be killed. There is no doubt.'"
People eligible for the immigration program include interpreters, cooks, drivers, cleaners and other workers, as well as their extended family members. CBC News also has learned that some Afghans who assisted Canadian journalists reporting on the war are also eligible.
Many news organizations, including the CBC, hire locals to help them navigate on the ground in war zones.
'They'd rather risk death'
Other interpreters are contemplating returning to Afghanistan in order to qualify for the program, according to Canadian advocates in contact with hopeful applicants.
"They'd rather risk death," said Wendy Long, the founder of the advocacy group Afghan-Canadian Interpreters. "They'd rather risk it again and go back to Afghanistan for hope. They are basically all living on a prayer."
Long is helping Afghan interpreters with their paperwork. She said the eligibility requirements are needlessly strict.
"There's a lot of confusion around the process and people are interested in going back to Afghanistan," she said.
The requirement that applicants be in Afghanistan "shows a disregard for their service with Canada and also a lack of, I guess, real knowledge," she said.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino was asked today if the federal government will expand the program to Afghans living in third countries. He made no commitments.
Mendocino instead cited other programs available to Afghans in danger, including a new program for human rights defenders.
"We have already put into place some special programs that have allowed for a pathway for targeted minorities, including Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, to come to Canada," he said.