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'Troubling lack of transparency' from Ottawa on Afghan refugees: advocate

OTTAWA — The federal government should be more clear about who is included in its evacuation plans from Afghanistan, said the founder of a national advocacy campaign to bring interpreters and local staff to Canada.

OTTAWA — The federal government should be more clear about who is included in its evacuation plans from Afghanistan, said the founder of a national advocacy campaign to bring interpreters and local staff to Canada.

Andrew Rusk, who is the brother-in-law of Capt. Nichola Goddard who died in Afghanistan in 2006 and was the first woman Canadian soldier to die in combat, said the government should reveal how many Afghan refugees were on a plane that landed in Toronto Wednesday.

The flight marked the first arrival of refugees who supported the Canadian military and diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. More planes carrying Afghans who contributed to Canada's mission are expected to arrive in the next days and weeks.

"We've seen a troubling lack of transparency from the government on who is included versus who is not, as well as the lack of transparency on who was included on the flight yesterday," Rusk said in an interview Thursday.

"In order to ensure that all Afghans that are currently experiencing threats of violence or direct violence themselves are safe, the government owes Canadians a clear explanation of who's included, and they owe Afghan families a clear explanation of who was included as well."

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the federal government won't share details on the numbers and whereabouts of Afghan refugees who landed in Canada Wednesday and those who will arrive later to protect the evacuees and the security of the operation.

Speaking to a virtual news conference Thursday, he said the government is dealing with urgent and volatile circumstances in Afghanistan as the international coalition forces led by the United States continue to withdraw from the country and the Taliban gain ground.

Rusk said the security of the operation is important but not disclosing the numbers of Afghan refugees who have arrived and those who will arrive later is not consistent with what the U.S. government is doing.

Washington announced last week that about 200 Afghan interpreters and their families have arrived in the U.S.

"It's not clear why our approach to security is inconsistent with the United States interpretation of security," Rusk said.

He said his group has identified more than 700 families that have members who supported the Canadian operation in Afghanistan.

"If you include locally employed staff and contractors, especially contractors that work for NATO where they support Canada, but also other countries and they're in a bit of a bureaucratic no man's land right now, the total number could be significantly higher than that."

The government last month announced a special program to urgently resettle Afghans deemed to have been “integral” to the Canadian Armed Forces' mission, including interpreters, cooks, drivers, cleaners, construction workers, security guards and embassy staff, as well as their spouses and children. 

At the time, Mendicino said the plan could potentially include “several thousand” Afghans.

The federal government should ensure that all of those who supported the Canadian military and diplomatic mission in Afghanistan are eligible for evacuation, said Rusk.

Rusk said the government should include families of interpreters who are already in Canada, families that have already fled Afghanistan to a third country, human rights workers, journalists and other Afghan workers who were employed by the Canadian government or by organizations funded by Canada.

He said all of the groups that his campaign is calling on Ottawa to evacuate are potential targets of the Taliban.

"Right now, we are letting bureaucracy, as opposed to doing the right thing, dictate who's included versus who's not," Rusk said.

Mendicino said the plan to evacuate Afghan who supported Canada's mission will be "inclusive," but he didn't commit to including the families of Afghan interpreters who are already in Canada, the families who have fled to a third country and journalists and human rights advocates in his plan. 

The Afghan refugees will receive assistance from the government during their first year in Canada and that will include income support and language training, Mendicino said.

Resettlement organizations are going to help Afghan newcomers find housing and will provide them with information about life in Canada, he said.

"This is only the beginning. And there are many challenging days ahead of us," he said.

"We continue to work around the clock here and overseas to help Afghans who have put themselves at great risk to help Canada."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference in Montreal he was "pleased" to see the first group of Afghans land in Canada and his government will work to bring "as many of them as possible" to the country.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press