CALGARY – Ottawa may extend its fast-track immigration policy for Afghan translators who help the Canadian Armed Forces and aid workers in Kandahar if troops remain in Afghanistan beyond 2011.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Friday it would make sense to continue the program for as long as such translators work with Canadians.

“The basic principle is any Afghan whose life is at risk because they’ve assisted Canadian Forces or aid workers we’re going to give them fair consideration for expedited immigration to Canada,” Kenney said Friday.

“If there is some kind of extension of a non-combat mission, I’m sure we’ll extend the same principle in the future.”

It was Kenney who originally announced the program to help Afghans who face what he called “extraordinary personal risk” by working with Canadians in Kandahar.

The program was scheduled to end in 2011 when Canada was originally scheduled to end combat operations in Afghanistan. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Thursday that Canadian troops will stay in Afghanistan to train the country’s military in a non-combat role after the combat mission ends next July.

Kenney said his priority right now is to deal with the current batch of applicants seeking to come to Canada. He said extending the program is not out of the question.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. We have applications in the queue we’re reviewing right now.

We’ll focus on those first.”

The application process has been slow and cumbersome.

There have been about 250 applications so far. Each has to be approved by a committee made up of officials from the departments of National Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Immigration and Citizenship.

The committee works with the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency based in Kandahar.

“Partly it’s because of the security situation. We have an interdepartmental committee that’s asked to meet and review the applications and for a while some of the NGO’s had pulled out of the region,” Kenney said.

“We’ve been able to get that back together now and I think the process is speeding up. We’re on track to receive between 150 and 200 by the time the program is over.”

The delays have been frustrating for the translators.

Applicants require 12 months service to the Canadian mission and a recommendation letter from a senior soldier or diplomat. They also need to meet standard immigration criteria such as criminal, medical and security screening before being allowed to come to Canada.

Interpreters who work with the NATO-led mission live dangerous lives. In the field most wear balaclavas or other face coverings to hide their identity.

Some receive threatening late-night phone calls or a so-called “night letter” nailed to their front door warning them to quit working with NATO. Living with such intimidation is a chilling fact of life for the men.

“We are in danger. Believe me when we go home we are actually looking all around to make sure nobody’s chasing us,” said an interpreter who goes by the name Mojo to protect his identity. Mojo has worked with Canada for a few years, including translating for Corrections Canada officials that help oversee Sarposa Prison.

“It is dangerous. The situation in Kandahar is actually getting worse so we do not know what will happen.”

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