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Sajjan calls feds’ 72-hour application deadline for Afghan interpreters a ‘mistake’

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OTTAWA —
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the three-day timeline to apply for resettlement in Canada that the federal government extended to Afghan interpreters and others who assisted Canadian military during the war was a “mistake.”

Speaking to reporters in B.C. on Thursday, Sajjan said he had just spoken with Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino about the matter and they are “committed” to ensuring these individuals’ safety regardless of when they submit their immigration package.

“That 72 hours was a mistake, that we put out – actually it’s not going to be 72 hours,” he said. “I can assure you that intense planning daily is taking place, I personally get daily briefings on this and things are moving very rapidly so that we can bring home all those Afghans safely.”

Last week, the government offered hope to the estimated 600 families of interpreters, security guards, cooks and cleaners who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces on their 10-year deployment and are under threat from the Taliban.

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However, Canadian veterans, advocates, and family members of these individuals have argued the resettlement application process is confusing, restrictive, and too extensive to complete in three days.

“The way the program has been set up to get people to apply right now seems to put more barriers in place then are possible for people to deal with, particularly in a three-day period given the lack of internet access in more remote places of Kandahar,” Howard Coombs, a veteran and military historian at the Royal Military College of Canada told CTV News Channel on Thursday.

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“The government has created a process that doesn’t reflect the realities on the ground”

The application guidelines, which are written entirely in English, require applicants to gather and fill out at least three lengthy electronic forms that require computer and internet access, in 72 hours.

Ottawa claims the deadline is not firm, but reflects the urgency of a deteriorating situation.

“The requested response time is a reflection of the urgency on the ground to get as many applications as possible as quickly as possible so that we can get people to safety. Applications received outside of that window will still be processed,” said Emilie Simard, director of issues management and parliamentary affairs for the immigration minister, in a statement to CTV News on Wednesday.

“This policy was developed to be as inclusive as possible, and although it is too soon to provide an exact estimate on how many people may be arriving, we expect that several thousand people will benefit from these special immigration measures.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also responded to criticism of the government’s approach on Thursday, saying the issue touches her personally.

“My husband actually worked as a reporter in Afghanistan and he became very close to many of the translators and interpreters he worked with so there’s been a lot of personal concern in my home about this,” she said.

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She stated that the government is committed to extracting Afghan nationals who helped Canadian military on the frontlines “as quickly as possible.”

“That is what has driven our approach and I want to be absolutely clear, this is not a question of restricting the right of people who served Canada and may now therefore be in danger. What we are really, really focused on is ensuring that the logistics work, and that these brave people have a chance to come to Canada,” she said.

The Taliban claims it now controls about 80 per cent of Afghanistan after the U.S. began extracting its military forces – a move U.S. President Joe Biden announced will be complete by Aug. 31.

The first group of interpreters that assisted U.S. troops – an estimated 750 people – are expected to arrive in the country this week.

During a news conference Thursday in Kuwait, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the White House is committed to helping those that helped their troops over the last 20 years.

“We’re actively engaged in that process, notably in relocation planning, for those brave Afghans and their families. That is a subject that came up today, as it’s come up in conversations with a number of other allies and partners,” he said.

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Coombs said the Canadian government could follow in the steps of their American counterparts and take evacuees to a third location for screening.

“Screen them there, take a look at their cases, but do it in a place where we have time, where we have safety, where we have security and if there are people that don’t meet our criteria then we decide at that point in time what to do,” he said.

The Conservatives also weighed in on the situation earlier in the day, calling on the federal government to extend the application deadline.

“While the Trudeau Liberals sat on their hands for weeks and failed to put forward a plan to help these brave Afghans – they are now giving these same individuals three days to save their lives. This is the height of hypocrisy and wrong,” said party leader Erin O’Toole in a statement.

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