Afghan Interpreters Escaping the Taliban Are Being Flown to Canada

Advocates have been pushing for years to grant refugee status to interpreters and their families who helped U.S. and Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.
August 5, 2021, 6:53pm
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Afghan nationals arrive at Toronto Pearson airport after being transported by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Photo via Facebook/Canadian Armed Forces

Flights carrying Afghani interpreters and support staff who helped the U.S. and Canadian militaries during the Afghanistan War touched down in North America over the past week, as a new Taliban offensive surges across the country. 

Over the past few weeks, the Taliban has besieged three provincial capitals in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times, and swept through much of the country’s rural areas. The offensive comes as U.S. troops finish their withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years there. U.S. President Joe Biden hopes to have all U.S. boots out of the country by the end of August—but many Afghans who helped the U.S. and Canadian militaries in the country remain in the country and are vulnerable to retribution by Taliban forces for assisting their enemies. 

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“The government has been seized with the urgency on the ground and is working as quickly as possible to resettle Afghan nationals who put themselves at great risk to support Canada’s work in Afghanistan,” said a Canadian government statement on Wednesday. 

The first of “a number of flights” carrying Afghan refugees touched down in Canada on Wednesday night, according to another Canadian government statement. CTV News estimated around three dozen Afghan refugees arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Early last Friday, about  200 Afghan interpreters and their families arrived in the U.S, the BBC reported, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said another 200 Afghanis touched down on Monday. He told reporters the U.S. is focused on relocating a group of around 4,000 people, including more than 1,000 applicants. 

The Canadian government didn’t offer details on how many Afghan refugees it hoped to resettle, only saying in its statement that more flights would be arriving “in the coming weeks and days.”

Both Canada and the U.S. are offering special immigration programs for Afghans who worked for their militaries or governments, as well as their families. In a news conference on Monday, Blinken told reporters that the U.S. would not only be issuing expanding its special immigrant visas to Afghans, but also offer a new resettlement program for those who may meet the program’s requirements. 

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“Some may not have met the minimum time-in-service requirement — for example, employees who began working for us more recently,” Blinken said. “And some were employed by American media organizations or NGOs, doing vital work to support [the] democratic process in Afghanistan.” 

Hundreds of Afghan interpreters, as well as cooks, support staff, and embassy employees, worked for the U.S. and Canadian militaries since the start of the Afghanistan War in 2001, a conflict that is estimated to have killed 241,000 people, including 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians. 

Many interpreters worry about the possibility of punishment or execution by the Taliban if captured. One former interpreter in Canada, identified only as Ahmed by CTV News, said his family received a threatening letter from the Taliban for his participation. 

“They’re really scared because, for how long can they live there?” he told CTV News in an interview. 

Advocates in both Canada and the U.S., including veterans, have demanded their governments protect the Afghan support staff they say were crucial to the war effort. During a brief resettlement effort that ended in 2011, Canada brought back nearly 800 Afghans, mainly interpreters and their families, but many other Afghan support staff remained behind. 

A letter signed by three retired Canadian major-generals last month said at least 115 former interpreters, cultural advisors, and “locally employed persons”, as well as their families, would be threatened by the Taliban. “If and when they are found they will likely be imprisoned or worse, for their service in support of our mission,” the major-generals wrote to Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino. 

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Wendy Noury Long, one advocate based in Ontario, told Legion Magazine the government response to the concerns of Afghan support staff over the years has been non-existent—and the current plan isn’t great, either. According to CBC News, Afghan interpreters and others who helped Canadian forces were only given three days to apply for the Canadian government’s resettlement program. 

“Instead of being proactive and working effectively on getting these guys out in a safe and orderly manner, the response is now reactive in the 11th hour due largely to the mounting media attention given to the pullout [and the] negative media attention here at home,” Long told the magazine in an interview last month. 

Meanwhile, the U.S.’s expanded special immigration program for Afghans still has plenty of hurdles. Bloomberg News reported that their applications would be considered only after they flee the country, and the U.S. won’t be able to help them escape. 

“This is incredibly hard,” Blinken told reporters on Monday. “It is hard on so many levels. “We have a special responsibility to those individuals. They stood with us and we will stand with them.” 

Follow Brennan Doherty on Twitter.