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Former Afghanistan interpreters begin a hunger strike on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 31. Former interpreters warned that time is of the essence as the Taliban are hunting down Afghans who worked for Canada and other Western countries.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Former Afghan interpreters for the Canadian military pleaded with MPs on Monday to “listen to our cries” for help, saying family members stranded in Afghanistan are running from safe house to safe house to escape Taliban reprisals.

The group told the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan that family members and colleagues left behind after the Taliban takeover of their country last August face bureaucratic insensitivity and delays in the processing of the special immigration visas they need to come to Canada.

Afghans who worked for Canada must fill out more than a dozen forms and face stringent security reviews, unlike what is being required of Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia, the six former interpreters said.

Ottawa swiftly streamlined the immigration process to help resettle Ukrainians, including waiving the biometric requirements for seniors and minors. The government also eliminated most of the normal visa requirements, and allows Ukrainians to stay and work in Canada for up to three years.

Ahmad Shah Sayed urged Ottawa to offer the same to Canada’s former Afghan staff and their families.

“Is our blood different than the Ukrainians?” he said.

Mr. Sayed said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) should not only speed up visa approvals, but also provide a single travel document for families who don’t have Afghan passports. This would allow them to cross into Pakistan, where Ottawa could do security screening and biometrics, he said.

The former interpreters warned the committee that time is of the essence as the Taliban are hunting down Afghans who worked for Canada and other Western countries. They are being severely beaten or killed, they said.

“Listen to our cries,” Hameed Khan told MPs. “We are desperately in need of saving our families. They are all hiding, moving from one [safe] house to another. Our homes are being searched. It is a dire situation.”

Mr. Khan said he and other interpreters had the highest security clearances, working alongside Canadian soldiers. They also interpreted for Canadian politicians and senior government officials who visited Afghanistan during Canada’s involvement in the NATO-led mission from 2001 to 2014.

“With the Canadian forces we were the eyes and ears on the ground. Many of our brethren and sisters died in those years, some on the front lines with Canadian soldiers,” he said.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser offers no timeline on resettling Afghan refugees as desperation grows

Former Afghan translators stage hunger strike on Parliament Hill to plead for families’ evacuation

As the Taliban advanced in Afghanistan last summer, Ottawa said it would resettle Afghans who had worked for the combat mission in Kandahar. About 3,000 got out before rescue flights ended in late August. In November, Canada set up a special immigration program for the extended families of its former Afghan employees. To qualify, applicants must have been in Afghanistan on or after July 22, 2021. It also established a program for women activists, human-rights advocates and Afghan journalists.

Those who were unable to get on evacuation flights or to escape to Pakistan with their families say it is difficult to obtain the special visas from IRCC. The documents would enable them to get into Pakistan and connect with flights to Canada.

“This is a matter of life and death. This is not a matter of paper work,” Ahmad Shoaib said. “It’s months that we have been in direct contact with IRCC, bringing up our problems and our families’ struggle to survive.”

Mr. Shoaib said the answer they repeatedly get from IRCC is that “they are taking notes and we are getting back to you.”

Former Canadian Armed Forces interpreter Ghulam Faizi told the MPs: ”The Canadian government must stop playing politics with us.”

The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that a request for a special visa from a former security guard at the now-shuttered Canadian embassy in Kabul went unanswered. The guard, Walid, was twice wounded and was decorated for protecting the embassy. The Globe is using only his first name, as he and his family fear Taliban retribution. Walid filed an application with IRCC on Aug. 7 and has heard nothing since about his eligibility.

Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said the bottleneck is not the IRCC’s processing capacity but “situational and environmental factors on the ground in Afghanistan,” including the closing of the embassy.

“Every step of the way, there are obstacles facing us in Afghanistan that were not present in other large-scale resettlement efforts,” he said. “The key challenge we face is that many at-risk Afghans remain in Afghanistan and are unable to leave.”

But retired major-general David Fraser, who commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan, criticized IRCC for the delays issuing travel documents. The slow pace of approvals has meant that Aman Lara, the Canadian veteran-led organization that helps vulnerable people leave Afghanistan, has been able to get only about 400 people out a month.

“The feds are not helping with ground transport or anything like that,” he said. “That’s all on us. But we can’t move people without a [visa] number. It is excruciatingly slow. We keep giving them lists and we keep waiting.” Mr. Fraser said about 10,000 former Canadian staff remain in Afghanistan.

MP Erin O’Toole, in one of his first public appearances since he was deposed as Conservative leader in February, apologized to the interpreters for the way Canada has treated them since the Taliban takeover.

Last year, the government committed to resettling 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan. More than 10,600 have arrived in Canada since August.

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