Afghan interpreters: belonging on the battlefield, exclusion from the nation?

The recent Windrush migration scandal poignantly illustrated the tensions between people’s sense of belonging to a country, societal recognition of that belonging, and legal status and access to social rights.

Sara de Jong
12 May 2018

An Afghan interpreter with two Afghan citizens/wikimedia. Some rights reserved.Last week the Home Office announced that it will waive the indefinite leave to remain fee for resettled former Afghan interpreters and other Locally Engaged Civilians (LEC) who supported the British army; this follows the example of the fee waiver for the Windrush generation and their families announced last month. Afghan interpreters and the Windrush generation share further commonalities. The majority of the West Indians on board of the MV Empire Windrush were veterans who fought for Britain in the Second World War.

The support from the Home Secretary and Defence secretary for the fee waiver is extremely welcome. Also welcome was their effective and swift coordination on an issue that indeed requires cross-Government responsibility, as MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee noted when he recently provided evidence on the case of Afghan interpreters to the Defence Select Committee. Now it is important to recognise and address the wider challenges facing former LEC; both in their protection and subsequent settlement.

The recent Windrush migration scandal has illustrated poignantly the tensions that can arise between people’s sense of belonging to a country, the societal recognition of that belonging, and their legal status and access to social rights. The Windrush West Indians are intrinsically intertwined with Britain’s colonial legacy, yet before substantial political and media pressure forced the Government to recognise this, this intertwinement offered little guarantee for the social rights associated with citizenship. The former local interpreters and other local staff who supported British military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have also received wide societal appreciation of their relationship with Britain, as evidenced in the many grassroots petitions in support of them, yet face challenges in relation to their protection and settlement.

Afghan and Iraqi Locally Engaged Civilians (LEC), as they are collectively called, were not soldiers but civilians who chose to work alongside British soldiers, performing essential tasks in and outside military bases, in Embassies and humanitarian projects. In a poignant speech last Monday, on April 30, MP David Lammy recalled the colonial relation between Britain and the Caribbean Windrush generation, powerfully captured in the phrase ‘We are here, because you were there’.  Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and other local staff are also in Britain, because British troops were in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The close association of Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and other local staff with the western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq not only carried risks during their employment, but haunts them to this day. They are an explicit target for insurgent forces who consider them ‘tongues of the enemy’, ‘infidels’ and ‘traitors’, forcing LEC to turn to the countries that employed them, for protection and support.

My ongoing research with former LEC and their advocates identified a range of challenges and policy gaps. Resettled former interpreters and those who individually claimed asylum face very different conditions. Will the recently announced fee waiver also apply to those interpreters who were forced to claim asylum in the UK, since they did not fall under the extremely narrow criteria of the ex-gratia redundancy resettlement scheme?

Will they provide traumatised LEC with similar mental health support as offered to ex-service men and women?

Those lucky enough to make it to Britain put great value on financial independence and their contribution to society. Many are exceptionally well-educated and fluent in English, keen to continue their education or work as cultural mediators. However, settlement to the UK’s rural areas with very little employment chances or university fees form insurmountable barriers. Many also feel disillusioned by the lack of recognition for their work. Will the government officially acknowledge the essential role of local interpreters and the risks they took?

The oral evidence provided to the UK Parliament Defence Select Committee in November 2017, and in February 2017, by expert witnesses from the veteran, Afghan LEC, media, political and academic communities, offers a rich resource of information to the Government of persisting inadequacies relating to the settlement and protection of LEC.

The Sulha network, campaigning for the rights of Afghan Interpreters who have served with the British Army, eloquently expressed remaining concerns. Best practices in other countries can also be a source of inspiration for further policy development. In California the State Assembly recently passed a bill that provides their former local staff with resident tuition rates and fast-tracks them for hiring by the state. In Germany, the equivalent of the MoD set up a mentor programme matching active military and reservists with former Afghan locally employed staff as a way to provide additional support with finding housing, employment, and a social network.

David Lammy repeated in his Windrush speech the famous appeal ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ The work of veterans in support of LEC and the many selfies of grinning British soldiers with their trusted interpreters that interviewees showed me, are testimony to the sense of brotherhood that many soldiers ascribe to the local Afghan and Iraqis who enabled their work.

While LEC see themselves as ‘double patriots’, in the apt words of Colonel (Rtd) Simon Diggins OBE, former British Defence Attaché in Kabul, serving both Afghanistan or Iraq and Britain, once their employment ended, they found that their belonging was fractured and conditional. Many felt discarded, thrown away, and dehumanised; treated with less care than military equipment. Let’s hope that the decision to waive the indefinite leave to remain fee for resettled former Afghan interpreters is just one of many further steps to recognise their humanity, their needs and contributions.

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