OTTAWA — Afghan interpreters who helped the Canadian military say the federal government has lied to them about bringing family members to Canada, and that people have died while waiting for paperwork to be processed.
At a press conference Wednesday organized by the NDP, interpreters said they planned to hold a hunger strike Thursday in protest.
Their plea for urgent action comes as the government revealed it has now welcomed 10,000 Afghans to Canada since the Taliban took control of Kabul.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser met a plane carrying nearly 300 Afghans at Toronto airport on Wednesday. He said “the hope and optimism to be in Canada was written all over their faces” when they arrived.
Fraser said the government was facing unprecedented logistical challenges getting people out of the country, but he said he was determined to make good on the commitment to bring the families of Afghan interpreters to Canada and said the government has “a moral obligation” to get them here.
“We are not going to go back on our commitment,” he said in an interview.
He said “our dedication has not changed one bit,” despite the unique challenges on the ground — including ensuring those fleeing have travel documents.
In December last year the government introduced a special immigration stream to bring the families of Afghan interpreters to Canada.
Hundreds have applied to join the program since then and filled in the paperwork, but none have made it Canada, according to the NDP.
Speaking at Wednesday’s NDP press conference, interpreters said their loved ones are fleeing from house to house to evade door-to-door searches by the Taliban and are burning documents showing links to Canada in fear of reprisals, as they wait to come to Canada.
Ghulam Faizi, a former Afghan interpreter who is now a Canadian citizen, says Afghans who have applied for passports to leave the country, following Canadian government instructions, have been interrogated by the Taliban.
“The Taliban — the first question is, ‘Why do you need a family passport? Who did you work for and who did your family work for?’” he said.
Others have waited so long for Canada to process their papers in neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, their visas are expiring and they face deportation back to Afghanistan where they could face persecution by the Taliban.
Safiullah Mohammad Zahed, who is among those planning to take part in a hunger strike in protest, accused the Canadian government of misleading Afghan interpreters about measures to swiftly bring their families to Canada.
“We feel like we have been lied to from day one,” he said.
New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan said the government should treat Afghans the same as Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, and speed their entry to Canada, processing their papers and biometric data once they are here.
The NDP immigration critic said no Afghan families have so far joined interpreters in Canada under special immigration measures introduced last year to bring in their relatives.
She said interpreters met with the government, including officials and the immigration minister, 25 times about the delays and logistical problems.
“They were promised that they would bring their family members here to Canada within weeks,” she said. “It has now been almost three months since they submitted their applications following the government’s instructions. Three hundred families have submitted their applications. Not one family member has made it to Canada.”
Aidan Strickland, spokeswoman for Fraser, said the government remains firmly committed to bringing in the Afghan families, and is “doing everything we can” and “using all available avenues” but the process is mired in obstacles.
“The Government of Canada remains firm in its commitment to resettle at least 40,000 Afghan nationals and is working to bring as many vulnerable Afghans as possible to safety in Canada as quickly as possible,” she said.
Afghan interpreters said while they wait for their applications to be processed their families are being hunted by the Taliban because they helped Canadian Armed Forces before the fundamentalist regime regained control in Kabul.
They said several died before they could board a plane to Canada, with others losing their jobs, buying papers on the black market to make it to Pakistan or living in hiding in Afghanistan.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press