Politics

Afghan interpreters who helped Canadian soldiers were warned they have just 3 days to apply for resettlement

Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan have been told they have only three days to apply for a new government program to resettle in Canada.

Interpreters and others who assisted Canada have been targeted by the resurgent Taliban

Canadian and American troops on a joint patrol in late June 2011. Afghan-Canadian advisers were critical to the work of both armies during combat operations. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press )

Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan have been told they have only three days to apply for a new government program to resettle in Canada.

The federal government announced last week a temporary new program to help interpreters and their families flee what Ottawa describes as a rapidly deteriorating situation in the war-ravaged country.

Those workers are believed to face a growing risk of being targeted by the Taliban, which is making significant gains as the United States withdraws its combat forces from the country.

"If they happen to be in an area that's controlled by the Taliban or influenced by the Taliban, then their lives are in immediate danger," said retired major-general Denis Thompson, who commanded a security task force in 2008 and 2009. "And not just their lives but the lives of their families."

Prospective applicants for the resettlement program were informed in an email today that they have just three days to submit their applications, which require the completion of multiple online forms and the scanning of documents.

"If you do not provide a completed application package within the next three days, we will conclude that you are not interested in participating in this Public Policy," reads a section of the email sent to prospective applicants.

Late Wednesday, however, a government spokesperson insisted the 72-deadline is not set in stone.

One former interpreter for the Canadian military said the three-day timeline fails to take into account where most prospective applicants live.

"It is not enough ... because almost all of the interpreters, some of them they live in a remote area," said Abdul. CBC News has agreed not to publish his last name due to his safety concerns.

Abdul said he has the paperwork and internet access he needs to complete the application for himself and his family, but he fears that others like him may not meet the deadline.

"The problem is lack of electricity, a lack of transportation," he said. "And after that, they have to apply for the passport. So they have to prepare other documents for their children, for the members of their families. These are all the problems for this program ..."

Dave Morrow, a retired Canadian infantry officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said a three-day deadline would be needlessly restrictive. (Submitted by Dave Morrow)

In a statement issued to CBC News, the federal government said the deadline communicated to applicants is not firm and that applications will be accepted after it expires.

"Officials will reach out to those who have already been contacted to clarify," wrote Emilie Simard, a spokesperson for the office of Immigration Minister Marco Mendincino. 

"The messaging will be revised in future communications to provide more clarity that applicants are encouraged to submit their application within 72 hours in order to quickly process as many applications as possible."

The statement did not explain why people were initially told they had just three days to apply.

WATCH | Interpreter says resettlement deadline too short:

Tight resettlement application deadline for Afghan interpreters

2 months ago
2:03
Afghan interpreters who assisted the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan have been told they only have three days to apply for a new government program to resettle in Canada. One former interpreter says that isn’t enough time because most of them live in remote areas without electricity or transportation. 2:03

'There is panic on the ground'

Thompson said the prospect of a three-day application window is "frankly, not very realistic" for many people facing Taliban reprisals. Others share his concern that a lack of reliable internet access and other logistical hurdles could prevent some former interpreters from accessing the program.

"I can't imagine any other government on the planet creating an ultimatum for people that are in desperate need of help and assistance," said retired captain Dave Morrow.

"There is panic on the ground," added retired captain Corey Shelson in an email to CBC News. "The truncated timeline will force Afghans to take exceptional risks to get to Kabul quickly."

According to a U.S. government estimate from 2018, only 13.5 per cent of Afghans have access to the internet.

Canada identifying those eligible for resettlement

A number of other workers, including cooks, drivers, cleaners, construction workers, security guards and staff employed at the Canadian embassy, may also be eligible for the program.

Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence say they are working to identify and assist people eligible for resettlement.

Thompson said that people identified by the government should be allowed into Canada immediately, where they could then complete the required paperwork.

"In our opinion, that's probably good enough to get them over here to do the remainder of the immigration process," he said.

The United States recently pledged to resettle as many as 35,000 Afghan interpreters and their families. They will be allowed to stay at U.S. military bases in Kuwait and Qatar for up to 18 months while their immigration applications are processed.

Simard said "several thousand people will benefit" from Ottawa's program to resettle interpreters, workers and their families.

The Canadian military was in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. Canada ended its combat mission in 2011 but kept soldiers in the country for another three years to help train the Afghan National Security Forces.

According to Ottawa, more than 800 Afghans who assisted the Canadian war effort already have resettled in Canada.

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