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Feds still trying to rescue families of Canadians who helped in Afghanistan: minister

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. Fraser says he's working with Canadians who helped the military in Afghanistan to develop programs to bring their families who are under threat by the Taliban to safety. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — The federal government is working with some Canadians who helped the military in Afghanistan to develop programs that would bring their families to safety, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Wednesday.

Some of those Canadians, however, say the government has not heard them out or helped rescue their families from the Taliban.

Two Canadians who served as language and cultural advisers in the country filed a Federal Court application last week alleging the government provided "superior immigration benefits" to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

The court filing alleges the government has been discriminatory in its uneven response to the two crises.

The Canadian government recruited some 45 Canadian citizens with Afghan heritage to serve as language and cultural advisers during its military mission in Afghanistan. 

It recently created a program to bring the Afghan families of those advisers to Canada, but the lawsuit says the criteria are so restrictive that it doesn't apply to many of their relatives who have been under threat since the Taliban took over in 2021.

Fraser says it's an unusual situation because there's no single representative for all the advisers who served in Afghanistan, but the government is still working with those it is aware of to try to help people who are fleeing vulnerable circumstances. 

"We're going to continue to develop programs that respond to the unique needs, given the unique circumstances of individual crises, and continue to work with some of the families that we've been made aware (of) when it comes to language and cultural advisers to find the best path forward," Fraser said on his way to a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill Wednesday.

The program for the advisers' families was developed after four of the 45 filed a human-rights complaints last year alleging discrimination on the part of the government. Those complaints have now been settled, but the terms of the settlements are confidential.

One of the advisers who filed the recent lawsuit, identified in the court filings only as John Doe 1 because of the risk to his family, said he's tirelessly tried to contact the minister and the immigration department to plead his case on behalf of his relatives.

His sister and her children risk deportation to Afghanistan from Turkey, but she doesn't qualify for the special program because she left before the fall of Kabul in summer 2021.

He said he's written emails to the minister, the deputy minister, their constituency offices, opposition critics' offices and even showed up to House of Commons committee meetings, but has not been able to speak with anyone in government. 

Fraser said he's mainly been in contact with people who have been referred to the government through a representative or people who have reached out directly. 

"Let's keep in mind that we've received more than a million expressions of interest for people in Afghanistan, some of whom are family members of Canadians who potentially have worked in some capacity on the mission in Afghanistan," Fraser said. 

"We take every single expression of interest seriously and try to advance a program that we think is going to allow us to (reach) the maximum amount of good for people who are fleeing extremely, extremely vulnerable circumstances."

The government has not yet responded to the advisers' lawsuit. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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