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Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino attends a press conference in Ottawa on May 13, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Thousands of Afghan nationals who worked for Canadian troops and diplomatic staff will be allowed to resettle in Canada through a fast-tracked process, as part of a new federal program intended to protect them from Taliban reprisals.

Three cabinet ministers on Friday described the program to reporters. They said that they could not provide many details, for security reasons.

The announcement comes after weeks in which the government faced increasing pressure to act in order to protect the lives of Afghans whose association with Canada now puts them at risk, as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban expands its territory.

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Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino acknowledged that the situation is urgent.

“The risk of retribution from the Taliban is grave,” Mr. Mendicino said, adding that people who worked with Canada, as well as their families, are often subject to intensifying threats of violence, torture and death. “Not only does Canada owe them a debt of gratitude, we have a moral obligation to do right by them,” he said.

Mr. Mendicino, joined by Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, said the program involves “special immigration measures,” and will include not only Afghans who worked for Canada, but also their families. He said that he anticipates the numbers of resettled people will be “in the several thousands.”

The government said the new program will offer a “path to protection in Canada” and will allow certain Afghan nationals to be in the country shortly. However, Mr. Mendicino did not provide a time frame, or details of what the protection would consist of.

The announcement was welcome news for Roya Shams, a graduate student in Ottawa, who said she has been terrified for her family in Afghanistan.

“To some extent it’s hopeful,” she said, adding that she is relieved to see the government taking action, though she is still anxious about the situation.

Ms. Shams said her father, who was an Afghan police officer and an advocate for girls’ education, used to work “side by side” with the Canadian military. She said he was assassinated in 2011, and now her family in Kandahar are in danger of Taliban reprisals.

“I fear for their lives,” she said. “The minute [the Taliban] come, I have no hope.”

Mr. Mendicino said the government’s focus is on those who have had a “significant and enduring relationship with the government of Canada in Afghanistan,” and that this includes interpreters who worked with Canadian forces, current and former locally engaged staff at the Canadian embassy, and their families.

Asked how many people are eligible, and when they will arrive, Mr. Mendicino said work is underway to identify eligible Afghans. He added later that the government is making an effort to be flexible and inclusive in the requirements.

The government’s new program follows weeks of pleas from various quarters.

Former Afghan drivers who worked for Canada recently told The Globe and Mail that they’re in danger, and that they have been asking the Canadian government to bring them to safety. And a former employee of the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan said he has been pleading with Ottawa to help get his family out of Kabul.

Andrew Rusk, the co-founder of Not Left Behind, an organization recently formed to advocate for action on the issue, said he was generally pleased with Friday’s announcement.

“But it shouldn’t have taken dozens of veterans and other Canadians to push the government to do the right thing,” said Mr. Rusk, whose sister-in-law was Nichola Goddard, the first woman to die in a combat role with the Canadian military.

Mr. Rusk said he and his wife, Kate, read in the news that the interpreter who had worked with Ms. Goddard was still in Afghanistan and needed to get to safety. That was what led him to start Not Left Behind, which consists of veterans, family members of veterans and others.

“Anybody that helped Canada previously that isn’t brought out has a target on their back,” Mr. Rusk said. “The Taliban isn’t going to care what your individual circumstances were.”

Canadian armed forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014.

In a statement, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole said that the resettlement program comes too late. “The Liberal government should have made this announcement weeks ago,” he said. “The Americans made it clear that they would be leaving Afghanistan months ago, and the rise of the Taliban was an expected result.”

The NDP’s defence critic, Randall Garrison, and its immigration critic, Jenny Kwan, released a statement saying these measures are “long overdue” and that it was “unconscionable” for Canada not to have done more already.

“The Liberals’ scramble to change their tune is demonstrated by the fact that the government is still unsure how many Afghans are eligible to come to Canada,” the statement said.

Ms. Shams said she doesn’t know yet if her family will be resettled in Canada under the new program, but that she hopes they’ll qualify. She said her heart goes out to everyone who is in the same situation.

“Right now my family needs rescue,” Ms. Shams said. “I hope the Canadian government would consider everything that’s happening and bring my family to safety.”

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