OTTAWA — Kabul safe houses that have been providing refuge to more than 1,700 Afghan interpreters and their families are to close Friday due to lack of funding, say groups that have been trying to help them.
Veterans groups previously raised about $2 million in private donations but said they would need an additional $5 million to keep the safe houses open after Friday.
The safe house occupants will have to find other places to stay in the Afghan capital and have been making contingency plans, said retired major-general Denis Thompson, part of a grassroots network of veterans, refugee advocates and other volunteers working to help the former interpreters.
Thompson said he was hopeful the interpreters and their families could still be helped to one day flee. He said the safe house option was never meant to be a long-term proposition.
He said he believes the summer federal election in Canada, which plunged the federal bureaucracy into the so-called “caretaker” mode meant that no concrete policy decisions could be made by public servants to help the Afghans. In the end, that led to high costs for the safe houses.
“It is much cheaper to resettle people than to pay for safe houses,” said Thompson.
“We’re talking millions of dollars, not even tens of millions of dollars, to complete this entire resettlement. It’s a G7 nation; these are not huge sums of money.”
Other veterans said the closure of the accommodations could leave the occupants at the mercy of Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, who stormed back to power this summer.
Retired captain Corey Shelson said the federal Immigration Department has been too slow to approve applications and travel documents for Afghan interpreters.
“There’s going to be 1,700 people leaving … and many of them are probably going to die. I don’t know how else to say it,” said Shelson.
“I can tell you that the 1,700 people that are currently living in the safe house are going to end up on the streets tomorrow due to bureaucratic inefficiencies within the Canadian government.”
The federal government has not directly funded the safe houses, which were seen as a temporary measure to help move vulnerable Afghans out of the country.
Thompson said he hopes the Taliban won’t take drastic action against any of the safe house occupants as the new rulers try to seek international recognition as Afghanistan’s new government and international humanitarian aid to stave off mass hunger due to a collapsing economy.
“It’s difficult to say how the Taliban would react. Our assessment is that they’ve been restrained.”
Thompson said the Kabul safe house occupants travelled from the southern city of Kandahar with the hope they would be airlifted by the American-led military forces that included Canada. But the airlift ended at the end of the August with the full U.S. military withdrawal leaving the Afghan interpreters and their families behind.
Some of the safe house occupants can’t go back to Kandahar because the Taliban have taken over their homes, while some have received death threats by telephone, said Thompson.
The safe houses also offered access to food and medical care, in addition to providing a safe haven. Many of the occupants will be living under much more harsh conditions, he said.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” said Thompson. “Some of them are going to be living rough, I’m sure. And some of them are going to have to take the chance of returning to Kandahar.”
Earlier Friday, the Conservatives called on the Liberal government to give urgent funding to the groups that have come together to organize and operate the safe houses.
Conservative MP James Bezan said the Trudeau government has been missing in action and must step in and fill the spending void.
“Not only did Justin Trudeau fail to get Canadians, interpreters, support staff, and their families out of Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban, he is now refusing to fund their safe houses,” Bezan said in a written statement.
“These individuals supported our military heroes in Afghanistan and the least we can do is help make sure they are safe.”
Global Affairs Canada has said little about any government efforts to support the safe houses, citing security considerations.
It has said it is working with the Veterans Transition Network and Journalists for Human Rights to protect vulnerable people in Afghanistan, including human rights defenders and former Canadian Armed Forces interpreters.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2021.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press