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Ottawa commits to resettling potentially thousands of Afghans, provides few details

OTTAWA — The federal government responded to weeks of pressure from Canadian veterans on Friday by announcing that it will fast-track the resettlement of potentially thousands of Afghans who have worked with Canada at different times over the past 20

OTTAWA — The federal government responded to weeks of pressure from Canadian veterans on Friday by announcing that it will fast-track the resettlement of potentially thousands of Afghans who have worked with Canada at different times over the past 20 years.

Yet the trio of cabinet ministers on hand to announce the new immigration measures were surprisingly light on details, including exactly who will be eligible as well as how and when people now in danger from the Taliban for having helped Canada will start to arrive.

“For operational security reasons, the precise timing of this operation is extremely sensitive,” said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, who is leading the effort alongside Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau.

“For the safety and security of the Afghans as well as the Canadian teams who are already on the ground … we have to safeguard the precise details of how this operation will be carried out, as well as exactly when it will begin.”

Friday’s announcement followed growing concern and frustration within Canada’s veterans’ community after the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in recent weeks emboldened the Taliban to take large swaths of the country.

The captured territory includes parts of the southern province of Kandahar, where the Canadian military spent the longest amount of time during its 13-year mission in the country and fought its bloodiest battles since the Korean War.

Canada lost 158 soldiers and seven civilians in Afghanistan before the military was withdrawn in 2014, most of them to hostile action by the Taliban.

Now the veterans say those Afghans who supported them as well as their families are facing the threat of retribution as the Taliban expands its reach and looks to exact revenge on collaborators.

Mendicino said the government already has teams on the ground working to identify people who are at risk for having worked with Canada, and that immigration officials will fast-track applications for asylum from those who qualify.

“Our focus is on those who have had a significant and enduring relationship with the government of Canada,” he said.

“Those eligible will include but are not limited to interpreters who worked with the Canadian Forces during the combat mission, locally engaged staff currently or previously employed at the Canadian Embassy and their families.”

He also encouraged Afghans now living in Canada to reach out to his office directly if they feel their families back at home are at risk and eligible.

Canada previously resettled about 800 Afghan nationals and their families in two separate programs launched in 2008 and 2012, before the end of the military mission.

Asked how many people could be eligible for escape to Canada this time around, Mendicino said: “Without getting into precise numbers, we do anticipate that the numbers will be in the several thousand.”

Mendicino and Sajjan also refused to say how the refugees will get to Canada, including whether Ottawa was fighting for space on evacuation flights planned by the U.S. and other allies.

“Obviously, for operational security reasons, we can't provide the details,” Sajjan said. “But one thing I can assure you that we are involved with the planning the logistics and security of how this will take place.”

He added, without providing detail, that Canada is in contact with its allies.

Friday’s announcement had been long anticipated after the government faced mounting pressure from Canadian veterans and others worried about former Afghan colleagues who now face arrest and even death at the hands of the Taliban.

Many had questioned why Canada was slow to act compared to the U.S., which is working with NATO to fly about 4,000 Afghan nationals and their families out of the country, and whose Congress has approved tens of thousands of special visas.

The U.S. is also reportedly considering flying tens of thousands of former interpreters and others to Kuwait and Bahrain so their immigration applications can be processed in safety.

The Conservatives and NDP blasted the timing of Friday’s announcement, accusing the Liberal government of having been caught unprepared and then dragging its feet until pressured into action.

“The Americans made it clear that they would be leaving Afghanistan months ago, and the rise of the Taliban was an expected result,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement.

“It’s quite disappointing that these Afghans who saved the lives of our men and women in uniform were an afterthought to this Liberal government.”

The NDP echoed that assessment and criticized the lack of detail, including when Afghans will start being evacuated.

One Canadian veteran involved in the grassroots push to help Afghans agreed that the government likely wouldn’t have acted if it wasn’t for the outcry that preceded Friday’s announcement.

But Dave Morrow, a Montreal-area high school teacher who served in Afghanistan in 2010-11 and has been trying to help Afghan interpreters come to Canada for a decade, said the important thing is the government has made a firm commitment.

Morrow, who is a member of an online group called Afghan-Canadian Interpreters that has been spearheading the issue, also agreed with the ministers’ concerns about security when it came to providing details about the current effort.

“We are actively working with the Canadian government to ensure that we get as many Afghans as possible over to Canada,” Morrow said. “So I have every confidence the government wouldn’t backtrack.”

The question now is what criteria will be used to decide which family members of Afghans who worked with Canada can come here, Morrow said, and when people can start to escape.

“Every day that we let go is another day that we could potentially save lives,” he said. “However, that needs to be buttressed now with the operational security aspect of things. … There's going to be a fine balance there.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press