OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau blamed Taliban checkpoints rather than bureaucratic red tape and delays on Wednesday as his government continued to face questions about the pace of Canada’s effort to evacuate hundreds of Afghans from their country.
Yet Trudeau’s comments stood in contrast to what Canadian veterans and others say has been a lack of information and responsiveness from immigration officials, with numerous reports of requests for help going unanswered by the government.
That has led to mounting frustration and fear for former Afghan interpreters and support staff who worked with Canada and are now facing the threat of Taliban reprisals if they are discovered and caught.
Appearing at a campaign event in Vancouver, Trudeau was asked about complaints that Afghans trying to escape to Canada are facing onerous paperwork requirements and a lack of communication from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
There have also been concerns that the eligibility criteria for the special program launched last month to resettle former interpreters and others has not been clear, particularly when it comes to extended families.
“The limiting factor on this is not paperwork or not connections with the Canadian government,” the Liberal leader and prime minister said while Liberal candidates from across Vancouver looked on.
“The limiting factor on getting people out of Afghanistan right now is people being unable to get to the airport, people being unable to actually leave the country.”
Trudeau went on to say that Canadian personnel are on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and the government has the capacity to process applications.
“We just need people to be able to get to the airport right now. The Taliban are preventing them from doing so, which is why we’ve seen a number of the planes airlifting people out have not been full.”
Senior U.S. military officers are talking to the Taliban about checkpoints and curfews that have limited the number of Westerners and Afghans able to enter the airport, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser on Tuesday acknowledged reports that some civilians were having difficulty reaching the airport, but said “very large numbers” were still reaching the facility.
Biden has given American officials until Aug. 31 to finish evacuation efforts. Kirby said 2,000 people had been evacuated over the previous 24 hours on 18 military flights, and that a similar number of flights was expected over the next 24 hours.
Following Trudeau’s comments, Canadian veterans, advocacy groups and former interpreters continued to voice concerns about Ottawa’s handling of the crisis, particularly when it comes to the Immigration Department’s failure to respond to Afghans.
“We’ve heard dozens of reports from interpreters on the ground that have submitted their paperwork and just not received responses,” said Not Left Behind co-founder Andrew Rusk, whose organization is part of a grassroots network to help Afghans.
“So updates on how the flows are being processed continues to be something that more and more transparency would benefit people on the ground.”
Rusk has said his group is aware of at least 2,000 individuals still in Afghanistan waiting to be evacuated.
The government has not provided a regular update on the number of Afghans who have been brought to Canada under the special immigration program launched on July 23, or on the identities of those Afghans, citing privacy and security concerns.
Trudeau on Monday did say 807 Afghans had arrived. Two more flights have since arrived in Canada. A request by The Canadian Press to IRCC for more up-to-date numbers on Tuesday had not been answered more than 24 hours later.
Many of the 800 former Afghan interpreters resettled in Canada between 2008 and 2012 are also still scrambling for answers on whether their extended families will be allowed into the country despite repeated requests for information from the government.
“A lot of things are unclear,” said Khan, who arrived in Canada under a special program in 2012 and is now desperately trying to help his mother and siblings after they fled to Kabul from Kandahar to escape the Taliban. “We still don’t have a clear answer.”
Retired corporal Tim Laidler, one of many Canadian veterans working to help former interpreters and their families come to Canada, echoed the others’ concerns about a lack of communication from immigration officials.
Laidler, who is now executive director of the Institute for Veterans Education and Transition at the University of British Columbia, said he is working with four families in Afghanistan that are waiting for immigration officials to tell them what to do.
Those families “are now stalled in the process,” he said. “(IRCC) says ‘email this email address,’ and then they don’t say anything. They just say: ‘Wait.’”
While many were expressing concern about the pace of Canada’s efforts on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department released a readout of a call between Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In it, Blinken is said to have praised Canada’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees who have already fled the country. That promise announced on Friday is separate from the government’s commitment to help Afghan interpreters.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel Garner in the meantime called on the government to outline its plan for reaching that goal, while urging the creation of a hotline so Afghans can check on the status of family members’ requests for help.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2021.
— With files from The Associated Press.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press