Treat our families as well as Ukrainians fleeing to Canada: Afghan interpreters

Treat our families as well as Ukrainians fleeing to Canada: Afghan interpreters
Afghan interpreters who have made it to Canada say their family members fleeing the Taliban deserve the same treatment as Ukrainians escaping from Russian troops. (Canadian Press photo)

Afghan interpreters who have made it to Canada say their family members fleeing the Taliban deserve the same treatment as Ukrainians escaping from Russian troops.

At a parliamentary committee on Monday, they called on the government to allow their families into Canada as easily as Ukrainians.

The interpreters complained their family members are stalled with stacks of forms and demands for travel documents that are difficult to obtain from the Taliban.

Ghulam Faizi, a former interpreter for the Canadian military, accused the government of making “fake promises” about the arrival of their loved ones, not one of whom has made it to Canada under a special program set up by the government to bring them here.

Interpreters accused Immigration Minister Sean Fraser of breaking a promise to start bringing their families to Canada by the end of March.

Safiullah Mohammad Zahed, also a former interpreter for Canada’s armed forces, was among those to question why Ottawa made it easier for Ukrainians than Afghan families to enter Canada.

Zahed told Parliament’s special committee on Afghanistan that members of his family were killed during Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan and he empathized with the plight of Ukrainians.

He said he appreciates why “thousands of Ukrainians” had been allowed to come to Canada with “very minimum requirements.”

But he questioned why people in mortal danger from the Taliban were being made to wait for so long to be approved for travel, with more complex entrance requirements — such as up to 15 forms to fill out — than Ukrainians.

“I appreciate what is being done for Ukrainians but … we wanted to be treated the same as other countries,” he said.

He told Parliament’s special committee on Afghanistan “our process stopped as soon as the Ukrainians started” with no progress on their families’ immigration applications since January.

Hameed Khan, a former interpreter, said many people are in “a life and death situation” and are being “chased down” by the Taliban in revenge for their help for Canada’s armed forces.

He called on Canada’s lawmakers to “listen to our cries.”

They warned delays are giving time to the Taliban to track their family members down.

The committee heard that the Taliban is punishing the families of Afghan interpreters, beating up men and women and stealing their possessions in reprisals.

The interpreters said their families have burnt documents showing links to Canada and have been fleeing from house to house.

Zahed said 12 members of his family are currently hiding in a single room while they wait for the green light to come to Canada.

Speaking at a press conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “the situation is very different” in Ukraine and Afghanistan, where it is “much more difficult.”

“In Ukraine they are fleeing a war where they are being helped by neighbouring countries and facilitated in their travel and supports,” Trudeau said. “In Afghanistan the government, the Taliban, is interfering with their ability to be processed. It is unsafe for Canadians to be there on the ground to process them so we are having to work with third countries.”

The Prime Minister said Canada will be welcoming over 40,000 Afghans and has “a responsibility to so many people who have contributed to Canada in really tangible, really direct ways.”

By last month 10,000 Afghans made it to Canada, many from neighbouring countries.

Aidan Strickland, a spokesman for Fraser, said there are many obstacles and logistical challenges in Afghanistan.

“The Ukraine situation is significantly different from the Afghanistan situation. Most, if not all, of Ukraine nationals who are looking to come to Canada have left Ukraine, and are not coming to Canada as refugees. In addition, we’ve heard from the Ukrainian community that many people wanted to come to Canada temporarily seeking safe harbour while the situation unfolds, and they can return home once it is safe to do so,” he said.

He said “Canada’s commitment to resettle Afghan nationals includes a special immigration program for Afghan nationals and their families who assisted the Government of Canada.”

But former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who sits on the special committee on Afghanistan, said Canada “failed” Afghan interpreters who helped Canada’s armed forces.

“I want to apologize on behalf of Canada,” he told the interpreters.

NDP critic on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Jenny Kwan criticized the government for subjecting interpreters to “even more bureaucratic red tape” just days after the interpreters held a protest and began a hunger strike to highlight their plight last month.

Kwan cited an email to Afghan interpreters from immigration authorities saying they have 30 days to submit additional documents or their families’ applications may be refused.

“While the families flee for their lives in Afghanistan, the government is burying their loved ones with more onerous paperwork,” Kwan said. “For some, this may as well be a death sentence.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2022.

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