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Ottawa expands Afghan resettlement program as Taliban approaches Kabul

Faced with a deteriorating security environment throughout Afghanistan, the federal government announced Friday that it intends to take in as many as 20,000 additional refugees from the war-torn country as the Taliban inch closer to the capital Kabul.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino today described the policy change as an expansion of the resettlement program announced late last month.

The announcement amounted to an acknowledgement by the Trudeau government of the deepening crisis in Afghanistan and the fear that, after almost two decades of unrelenting guerilla warfare, the hardline Taliban movement may be about to overthrow the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

Militants have swept through northern, western and southern regions of the country and are soon expected to isolate Kabul.

ottawa expands afghan resettlement program as taliban approaches kabul
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced changes to the repatriation program on Friday, following a week of critical military victories by the Taliban. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The newly enhanced federal program focuses on those who have fled the country or are in the process of fleeing it. It will include families of interpreters who already have immigrated, women leaders, members of minorities targeted by the Taliban and journalists.

“We’re showing tangible leadership,” Mendocino told a snap news conference Friday afternoon which included Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef, who is an Afghan immigrant.

Original plan faced heavy criticism

The government initially announced a special immigration program for interpreters who worked with the Canadian military and other government agencies. It subsequently faced a storm of criticism from those who were excluded, including previously resettled interpreters who fear for their loved ones still in the country.

Mendocino said the operation is being carried out in “extremely difficult circumstances” and will continue in close cooperation with allies, such as the United States and Britain.

ottawa expands afghan resettlement program as taliban approaches kabul 1
Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (Gulabuddin Amiri/Associated Press)

Responding to criticism about the speed with which the current military interpreters program is operating, Mendocino said the government is aware of the urgency of the situation as the Taliban conquer more and more of the country.

Sajjan confirmed that special forces troops are operating on the ground in Afghanistan but refused to say precisely what they’re doing, as it relates to securing the Canadian embassy.

To date, four relief flights carrying Afghan interpreters — two military, two under contract — have arrived in Canada. The latest touched down this afternoon.

“This is very personal,” said Sajjan, who did three tours in Afghanistan as a reserve force intelligence liaison officer. “This is very personal to me as well. We will not rest until we get everyone out.”

An uncertain future for the embassy 

The fate of Canada’s embassy was in question Friday. Reports from multiple sources on the ground — as well as from the veterans’ community, which has been pushing to get interpreters out of harm’s way — have said the embassy was closed and it has stopped taking appointments for biometric scans.

Garneau declined twice to clearly answer questions about the current status of the diplomatic mission.

The shuttering of the embassy in Kabul has the potential to affect hundreds of asylum-seekers whose applications have yet to be approved.

“The situation is troubling,” Garneau said, referring to the advance of the Taliban. He cited operational security as the reason for his evasive answers.

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