Ex-Afghan interpreter praised by top soldier is still in the dark about his immigration status

·4 min read
Afghans sit along the tarmac as they wait to leave the airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, following the stunningly swift collapse of Afghanistan's government. Thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the Taliban's hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Afghans sit along the tarmac as they wait to leave the airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, following the stunningly swift collapse of Afghanistan's government. Thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the Taliban's hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Saturday will mark a year since Ottawa created a special program to prioritize immigration applications from Afghans who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian government, along with their family members.

One former interpreter — whose work earned him a letter of appreciation from Canada's current chief of the defence staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre — has been waiting nearly as long to find out if he qualifies.

"Sometimes [Eyre] would put his hand on my shoulder, say, 'Hey, nice, you've been doing a very good job for us,'" the interpreter told CBC News from Islamabad, Pakistan, where he now lives.

CBC News is withholding his identity to protect him from the Taliban, which has issued a warrant for his arrest.

His family still lives in Afghanistan. He said he thought initially that they would be safe as long as he left them and went into hiding.

"I do regret [doing that]," he said, adding he switched hiding places in Afghanistan roughly 15 times before finally crossing the border into Pakistan in May.

His letter from Eyre is dated August 6, 2007, when Eyre was a lieutenant-colonel serving in Kandahar. In it, Eyre praised the interpreter for his "prompt and courteous" service and said his work in training others ensured "highly skilled translators for both operations and garrisons duties" were ready to be deployed.

The interpreter included Eyre's letter in his queries to Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. He sent the first of those messages in August of last year.

"All I got was an automated reply," he said.

CBC News has seen copies of 12 notes the former interpreter subsequently sent to the government, none of which received detailed responses.

And the Taliban continues to hunt for him, he said.

"The Taliban came to my house. They searched my house twice."

Opposition pushes for program extension 

In a statement sent last week to CBC News, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser's office confirmed the 18,000 spots in the special immigration measures program have been filled through roughly 15,000 applications and referrals forwarded by Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence.

It's not clear whether applicants who have received no replies to their queries count among those 18,000 or have been excluded.

"What happened to all those people who sent in their email? Are they going to be left behind?" said NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan.

"As the clock continues to tick, people's lives are in danger, every minute, every second of the day."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

She again called on the government to expand the program to allow more Afghans into the country.

Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan echoed that argument at a news conference Thursday.

"Canada needs to get our allies to safety because it is the right thing to do," Hallan said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser both side-stepped the question when asked about extending the program Thursday.

WATCH: Trudeau is questioned about closure of special Afghan immigration program

Trudeau pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people want to leave Afghanistan.

"We're going to have to figure out how to step up and support people who remain in Afghanistan with humanitarian support, with investments with the global community," he said.

"At every step of the way, the challenges in Afghanistan are much greater than in other situations where we've been involved in resettlement," Fraser said, citing the uncooperative nature of the Taliban government, which has been listed as a terrorist entity by Canada and many other Western countries.

CBC News asked for an interview with Gen. Eyre about the interpreter. His office said he was unavailable but offered a written statement.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

"There were many interpreters and other local staff (in the hundreds) employed by or associated with the multinational units General Eyre commanded during his two tours in Afghanistan," says the statement, adding that he signed a lot of certificates and letters based on the recommendations of Canadian or coalition supervisors.

The statement says Gen. Eyre "sympathizes with the plight of all Afghans, and is unfortunately not in a position to comment or intervene on any individual case," given his legal and ethical obligations under the Conflict of Interest Act as chief of the defence staff.

About 7,205 Afghans have arrived in Canada under the special immigration measure so far.

The government has set a goal of bringing 40,000 Afghans to Canada. It has resettled 16,645 Afghans to date.

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