Afghan Interpreters: The Battle For Right To Live In UK After Assisting Troops

Former military officials say current policies fail a number of local staff who risked their lives to help the Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

In an open letter to the Government, a number of former British military leaders have asked for more Afghan interpreters to be granted sanctuary in the UK.

A review on current relocation policy has been requested, in light of an "indiscriminate and resurgent Taliban", as US and NATO troops finalise their withdrawal from the country.

Afghan civilians served as interpreters for British forces in Afghanistan's Helmand province from May 2006 until December 2014, using linguistic and cultural expertise to protect troops.

Efforts to relocate them and their families to the UK have followed, with many being offered sanctuary, though the danger to those who were refused entry continues to rise.

Relocation policy: A brief summary

The policy being scrutinised in the letter from former commanders and other defence figures is the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), launched in April 2021.

It applies to locally employed staff and has replaced the 2010 Intimidation Policy.

It will run alongside the 2013 Ex-Gratia Scheme, which offers relocation to the UK, five years of training and a monthly stipend or the equivalent of 18 months' salary.

The Ex-Gratia Scheme, running until November 2022, involves strict criteria on who can apply to live in the UK, considering the length of service and the precise role played.

ARAP was introduced to fast-track many Afghans into relocation through a tiered approach:

  • High risk local staff who face imminent threat can be relocated urgently
  • Local staff in the public eye whose risk could shift with the security situation can be relocated on a "routine basis"
  • Those not eligible to move will be offered alternative support, including relocation within Afghanistan
  • Unique, case-by-case relocation for exceptional circumstances
British Army Officer in Helmand Province (Picture: PA).
British troops in Helmand Province benefitted from the cultural and linguistic expertise of local interpreters (Picture: PA).

Who is at risk?

In 13 years of British combat operations in Afghanistan, around 3,500 Afghan interpreters worked alongside personnel on the ground, performing a vital communication role.

According to a written response from Defence Minister James Heappey on 26 July, nearly 2,000 former Afghan locally employed staff and family members have been relocated to the UK under ARAP and the Ex-Gratia policy.

Crucially, those who have been dismissed from UK employment are excluded from relocation eligibility under current policy.

Interpreters "who were among the 35% of staff dismissed from service for various reasons without any due process or ability to appeal their dismissal" should be given a chance to relocate unless a national security risk to the UK can be proven, the letter said.

Interpreters and others who were sub-contracted rather than directly employed by the UK Government are also ineligible, the letter said.

"The Taliban make no such distinction about employment of local staff with coalition forces and have already murdered a number of those in these categories," it added.

The routine relocation tier of ARAP includes "exposed meaningful enabling roles", such as patrol interpreters, but former defence officials are concerned for others which do not fall under this category but are still at risk for the assistance they gave to western forces.

Danger to those left behind

The beheading of an Afghan interpreter who worked with US forces was widely reported in July.

The man, said to have been in his 30s, was reportedly intercepted by Taliban militants and killed after trying to escape.

The former UK military officials believe ARAP is unable to keep pace with the situation at hand and the danger posed to those who helped British troops.

"If any of our former interpreters are murdered by the Taliban in the wake of our withdrawal, the dishonour would lay squarely at our nation’s feet," the letter added.

Reflecting in puddle near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan 230119 CREDIT US ARMY
There are concerns over Taliban violence as coalition forces leave Afghanistan (Picture: US Army).

Regarding the open letter, an MOD spokesperson said: "We owe a huge debt of gratitude to interpreters who risked their lives working alongside UK forces in Afghanistan and the government has already supported over 2,200 former Afghan staff and their families in creating new lives in the UK.

"Nobody's life should be put at risk because they supported the UK Government to bring peace and stability. We are the only nation with a permanent expert team based in Kabul to investigate claims from courageous local staff who are threatened as a result of their work with the UK."

Cover image: File photo of the Afghanistan capital Kabul (Picture: MOD).