KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghan interpreters who have been seriously injured while working with the Canadian army could soon receive help immigrating to Canada, federal government officials say.
Ottawa isn't making any promises but says it has taken an interest in a handful of cases where interpreters have lost their limbs while working with the Canadian military.
Unlike other NATO countries, Canada has no policy on helping injured local staff immigrate. Interpreters maimed in battle are left pleading with Canadian soldiers for help getting Ottawa to notice them.
Officials say the government is now examining options for a special immigration process, as the United States and Australia have done for local employees operating in war zones.
Canadian officials in Ottawa and Afghanistan say they are weighing a variety of options.
They say that any program would be limited to only a small number of severe cases, and that they are grappling with logistical issues like where to gather applications.
"It's something we're working on," said one Canadian official.
"We want to avoid a situation where there are long lineups outside the embassy (in Kabul) - which would present a security challenge."
A devastating suicide attack outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul recently drove home the threat to large crowds outside diplomatic facilities in the capital.
Media reports about two Afghan interpreters who lost their legs working for the Canadian military brought the issue to the attention of Immigration Minister Diane Finley.
"The Afghan interpreters have been an invaluable assistance to Canada's efforts to help the people of Afghanistan," said Finley spokeswoman Julie Vaux.
"Minister Finley has taken a personal interest in this matter."
Any government plan would apparently be subject to at least two caveats.
Applicants would still need to pass the standard security checks required of all immigrants to Canada, and the program would likely apply only to interpreters with severe injuries like a lost limb.
One interpreter - nicknamed Junior - says many of his colleagues have been killed but he's aware of only four cases where they have lost limbs while working for the Canadian Forces.
Junior is one of them. He lost both legs in a rocket attack two years ago.
He and the others are pleading for help from the Canadian government, saying they are now easily identifiable as interpreters, making them targets for the insurgents.
Security concerns aside, the former forestry worker says he no longer has a future as a legless man in Afghanistan. Sidewalks and wheelchair access are almost non-existent, and there are very few desk jobs for people with reduced mobility.
Insurgents have gone to gruesome lengths to make an example of locals who work with NATO.
In one case, several interpreters' bodies were strung up in a public square and left to rot there for weeks as a lesson to anyone else thinking of helping the foreigners.
Junior says he has received death threats by telephone.
Another interpreter says he was so worried about returning to his own neighbourhood that he has been lying to his mother for months, coming up with excuses about why he can't go to see her.
That young man - named Hasham - says he's terrified his neighbours will start talking about the one-legged boy who speaks English and that he will be singled out by insurgents.
He says his mother still has no idea that a roadside bomb tore off his left leg almost four months ago.
Junior says he will continue contributing to Canada's mission if the country grants him his wish of moving to Toronto with his wife and children. He says he can provide cultural and language training to soldiers.
He says he's pleased to hear the Canadian government has taken an interest in his case, but doesn't want to get his hopes up until he sees a commitment.
"We're very happy. But we're not too happy yet," Junior said.
"Canada would be a peaceful, stable place where we can live."
He still works with Canadian soldiers stationed at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, pulling down a salary of $1,250 per month - a princely sum in Afghanistan.
But he says that in Canada, he could teach soldiers scheduled to come over about sensitive cultural issues that would help them relate better to the local population.
He says sometimes the soldiers use the "F-word" too often around locals, or are too aggressive in questioning local women - a big cultural offence in Afghanistan.
"If they knew the culture better, things would be easier."
Last year, the U.S. Congress approved a tenfold increase in special immigrant visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters.
The legislation authorized 500 such visas to be issued annually over two years - up from the 50 annual visas previously allowed.
About 2,000 interpreters in both war zones applied under the special program, which started in 2006.
More than 1,700 have been approved but, so far, few have actually made the move to the United States because most of their files have yet to be cleared through the bureaucracy.
The Australian government has authorized 600 humanitarian visas for its local staff in Iraq, citing concerns for their safety following Australia's pullout from the conflict.
Opposition parties are calling on the Canadian government to follow its allies' lead.
Three members of the NDP - defence critic Dawn Black, immigration critic Olivia Chow, and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar - urged the government to take action.
Chow said any program must involve three guarantees:
-The ability to include immediate family members, such as spouses and children.
-Assistance with travel, with half the travel cost subsidized and the other half provided as a loan.
-English-language and work training once they arrive in Canada.
She said that under present immigration law these interpreters - especially if they have disabilities or uncertain job prospects in Canada - would have an extremely difficult time meeting the criteria.
Black said: "It seems to me that when the Canadian military hires local Afghans as interpreters we undertake an obligation to them ...
"The fact is that once the person we are using becomes fully incapacitated after an IED attack they - and their families probably - are marked and outed and under great threat by the insurgents."
The Liberals also said the government should help interpreters. But they warn that any program should be limited in scope.
"We don't want to encourage a mass exodus of educated and committed Afghans from the country," a Liberal spokesman said.
"They are needed to help Afghanistan transition to a stable and secure democracy."