A new federal program intended to save the lives of Afghan interpreters and embassy staff by resettling them in Canada delivered its first planeload on Wednesday, but advocates say it needs to work faster and that the eligibility requirements need to be broader.
The government announced the program two weeks ago after months of pressure to provide assistance to Afghan nationals who have been employed either by the Canadian military or Canadian diplomats in Afghanistan.
The employees’ relationship with Canada now puts them and their families in potential danger because the U.S. is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban, a hard-line Islamist group gaining territory in the country, could now seek reprisals against those who have worked for foreign countries. The new program allows the Afghan workers and their families to come to Canada through a fast-tracked immigration process.
At a news conference on Thursday morning, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino confirmed that the first planeload of Afghans had arrived in Toronto on Wednesday. He said it would be the first of many flights.
Reporters asked Mr. Mendicino about the number of people on the flight, as well as how many the government expects to bring into the country over the coming weeks, but he said he could not share that information because it could pose a security risk to those still in Afghanistan.
Mr. Mendicino previously said he expected to resettle several thousand people.
“Today is a good day,” Mr. Mendicino said at the news conference. “Today brings with it a sense of hope, optimism and a sigh of relief for those first Afghan refugees that touched down last night, and got up this morning to begin a new life here.”
More flights will be arriving in the days and weeks to come, he said, and the resettlement program has operational support on the ground in Afghanistan, including language supports for when people fill out their English applications. Mr. Mendicino added that the Afghans are arriving under the government-assisted refugees program, meaning they will be fully supported by the federal government for one year.
“I want to recognize the significant contributions of these brave Afghans, who have provided support to the government of Canada, and I know they will continue to make great contributions to our country,” he said on Thursday.
Andrew Rusk, co-founder of Not Left Behind, an organization made up of veterans and families of veterans who advocate for government action on this issue, said that he is “relieved” Afghans are beginning to arrive in Canada. But he added that he’s very concerned that the resettlement process may not be moving quickly enough, and that certain deserving people may be excluded. Some Afghan interpreters had been resettled in Canada years before the new program was announced, he said, and now there is uncertainty over whether they will be able to use the new expedited process to bring over family members who are still in Afghanistan.
The new program allows people to request to bring family members with them. It does not explicitly include the extended families of those already in Canada.
“We need to move faster, and we need to open up our eligibility criteria to ensure everybody that is being threatened with violence from the Taliban is included and brought to safety,” Mr. Rusk said. “We’re at the dawn of a grave humanitarian crisis.”
A former interpreter, whom The Globe is not naming for his family’s safety, worked with the Canadian Armed Forces for a number of years and resettled in Canada in 2010. He said in an interview that his move to Canada increased the risk to his relatives left behind in Afghanistan, and that he wants the federal immigration department to listen to people in his situation and help their families.
Earlier this week, he said, he applied through the government’s new program to bring his siblings and parents to Canada, but he hasn’t yet heard back. The first thing he does when he wakes up every morning, he said, is check his phone to see if there is any bad news from them. He said he has already had cousins killed by the Taliban.
Former Afghan interpreters now living in Canada held a rally on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to demand that the government bring their families to safety.
Jenny Kwan, the NDP Critic for Immigration, and Randall Garrison, the NDP Critic for Defence, said in a statement that Afghan interpreters, other Afghans who worked for Canada and their extended families are in a “highly precarious situation.”
“Although many collaborators are finally being helped to come to Canada, the Liberals’ new process is not good enough,” the statement said. The NDP is asking the government to broaden the program to allow for extended family, and for the application deadline to be extended.
The Conservative party did not respond to a request for comment.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.