Dozens of former interpreters for the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan rallied on Parliament Hill today to call on Ottawa to speed up and expand its efforts to resettle them and their family members.
The federal government is hoping to resettle Afghans who helped with Canada's 13-year military mission in Afghanistan. The Taliban has tightened its grip on the country, putting those who assisted Canada, the United States and other allied countries during the war, along with their families, at risk of reprisals.
Over 800 Afghans who worked with Canada have settled here over the past decade, according to the government. But many who are eligible for resettlement — including former security personnel, drivers and cooks — are still in Afghanistan.
Many extended family members are not yet eligible for the resettlement program, even though they face the threat of violence as the Taliban seizes control over parts of the country.
The program's critics also take issue with the fact that only those now in Afghanistan are eligible, which leaves out Afghans who have fled to other countries.
Interpreters who spoke to CBC at the rally did not want to be identified, citing concerns for their personal safety.
A former interpreter at the rally going by the name "Ahmad" said that his brothers and sisters live in fear in Kandahar, the province where the CAF conducted most of its operations.
"We want our families to be saved, to bring them here," he said. "I cannot even sleep ... I am thinking about back home, about my family."
Khan, another former interpreter for the CAF in Afghanistan who gave only his last name, told CBC News that the Taliban beat his cousin to death yesterday. Many of his other family members are in hospital, he said.
The government said it is working as quickly as possible to settle the interpreters in Canada, but the program announced last week gave applicants just three days to submit several pages of online forms. The program has been criticized for imposing such a tight deadline in a part of the world with unreliable internet and electricity access.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the deadline is not firm and the government has sent follow-up information to those who may have been confused by the initial instructions.
In a statement issued to CBC News, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the government is not able to disclose how and when successful applicants to the program will arrive in Canada, citing privacy and safety reasons. The spokesperson said processing "is well underway" and the government "will continue to work as quickly as possible."
The government also says it has "broadened" the program.
"We have also broadened the definition of family to be more inclusive and compassionate to include de facto dependants (who may or may not be related) and who do not otherwise meet the definition of family under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act," the statement reads.
"Our current focus is to help those who are in danger in Afghanistan to get to safety as quickly as possible. Canada has one of the strongest immigration systems in the world, and those outside Afghanistan can continue to apply to immigrate to Canada through regular immigration channels, such as the economic and family classes."
A spokesperson for Mendicino confirmed to CBC News that only applicants in Afghanistan are eligible for the program.
Another former interpreter told CBC News that the government has not given him any confirmation that it received his application to settle in Canada.
WATCH: Pace of Afghan interpreter resettlement "absolutely unacceptable," says retired CAF captain
Advocates for the Afghan interpreters — some of them Canadian Armed Forces veterans — say they fear that the slow and confusing program rollout is putting lives at risk.
"I believe we have a moral obligation to help these people as best we can," said retired CAF colonel Mark Gasparotto. "While I was initially heartened by the press conference the ministers of National Defence and Immigration gave, it's become clear the execution and the details need to be changed and tightened up.
"Because right now, the program is not as flexible as it needs to be and nowhere as inclusive as it needs to be."
Singh calls for 'broad' resettlement program
At a event celebrating the New Democratic Party's 60th anniversary today, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said he wants the government to move faster.
"These Afghani interpreters put their lives at risk to support our troops in Afghanistan and right now, they're in harm's way," he said. "There's been some efforts but there's not been enough."
He also said the program should be expanded to include family members of Afghans who assisted Canada's mission.
"I think we need to be very broad in our understanding of the people that have been threatened. If an interpreter risked their life and now their family's lives are at risk, we've got the responsibility to support them now," he said. "And so, I'm calling on Justin Trudeau to do as much as possible to protect these interpreters, these Afghanis who supported us. They're in danger now and they need our help."
Earlier this week, the United States government announced that it is broadening the scope of eligibility for its own resettlement program.
In a statement issued today, Conservative leader Erin O'Toole condemned the government's handling of the program, comparing it unfavourably to the American approach.
"Unlike Canada, the United States has offered to provide refuge and a transparent timeline to support Afghan interpreters. Instead of providing the answers they deserve, Justin Trudeau is stonewalling these heroes who served our country honourably," O'Toole said in the statement.