Should Britain offer asylum to Afghan interpreters who served its forces?

The UK Government is currently refusing to offer automatic asylum to those who risked their lives interpreting for the British army in Afghanistan. As pressure mounts, will they change their minds?

Aisha Maniar
13 November 2013

An Afghan interpreter with two Afghan citizens/wikimedia

When NATO and US forces withdraw from Afghanistan next year, they will leave millions of ordinary Afghans to a future of uncertainty and insecurity. Along with NATO, jobs attached to it will go too, including those of thousands of local interpreters who have worked alongside NATO troops over the past 12 years.

Interpreting is often a hazardous occupation. In the theatre of war, the risk is at an entirely different level. News stories of the deaths of western soldiers, journalists and contractors seldom mention the deaths of the interpreters who accompany them, without whom their work would be impossible.

Interpreting, and communication, go beyond mere words; interpreters negotiate body language, relationships of power and authority, gender, ethnicity, custom and other variables loaded into words. In a country like Afghanistan, divided along ethnic and religious lines, the situation is all the more complicated, one to which an outsider may be completely oblivious.

Interpreters have a role to play in brokering both war and peace. There is no doubt that the skilled and perceptive work of interpreters with local knowledge has helped to save many lives on both sides and defuse potentially explosive situations. This has been at considerable personal risk; more than 20 interpreters working alongside British soldiers have died and dozens of others have been injured. Many soldiers and interpreters would say they do the same job and are exposed to the same risks.

Nations do not usually think kindly of foreign invaders or those who assist them. It is not just the Taliban interpreters have to fear; some have reported threats from their neighbours and communities. Such resentment is inevitable: thousands of Afghans have been arrested, “disappeared” and killed by NATO troops over the past 12 years. Local interpreters would inevitably have been present during interrogations involving torture. Threats have led some to leave the job to protect themselves and their families. Once NATO withdraws, they are unlikely to find other work as many Afghans do not trust them. The Afghan police and security forces would not only be unlikely to be able to protect them, given their own spiralling casualty rate, but may also target them, in view of their vulnerability and the high levels of corruption in the country.

Following withdrawal from Iraq, local interpreters there, who suffered far higher casualties, were offered a targeted assistance scheme which is now closed; it included the opportunity to resettle in the UK under a refugee resettlement programme. More than 900 local staff were resettled through this scheme.

Although the threat faced by Afghan interpreters is not new, the government has decided not to extend this scheme and instead to deal with cases individually. The government does not have a legal obligation to provide asylum or protection to interpreters, although some would argue it has an obligation under Articles 2 (right to life) and 3 (prohibition on torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Refugee Convention itself takes an individualised approach. Furthermore, to apply for asylum, an applicant has to have left their country of nationality, and the UK does not consider previous occupations when processing asylum claims. Some former interpreters have already sought asylum in the UK with varying degrees of success.

An application was brought at the High Court in May on behalf of three Afghan interpreters which could set a precedent for others. Lawyers for the interpreters claim that not extending the scheme offered to Iraqis is “unlawful and discriminatory” under the Equality Act 2010, and that they should be afforded the same benefits. The case was brought after the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence failed to act on a letter with similar claims sent to them last year.

Others believe the government has a “moral obligation” to provide assistance and resettlement; a letter signed by senior figures in April accused the government of “abandoning” the Afghan interpreters. Many Afghan interpreters and British military personnel feel the interpreters have been seriously let down by the government.

With a growing campaign and pressure, on 4 June, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced “a generous package of training and financial support”. In the case of interpreters, there is a third option of resettlement in the UK with the caveat that they “must have routinely worked in dangerous and challenging roles in Helmand outside protected bases”, and other limitations on eligibility.

While this could see up to 600 interpreters and their families resettled in the UK, the package has been slammed as “inadequate”, as it excludes more interpreters than it includes. The campaign is continuing to secure the resettlement of all Afghan interpreters who served alongside the British army. A petition with over 60,000 signatures was delivered to Downing Street on 14 August.

The response by other states has been mixed. New Zealand and Australia are accepting their interpreters as refugees. Hungary is offering a lump-sum payment and others have no policy as yet. In view of some of the inadequate responses, including by the UK, the International Federation of Translators has sent a series of open letters on the issue to the heads of states concerned.

Whatever final resolution the British and other governments come to, time is running out for the Afghan interpreters. The British government claims that the interpreters are fully briefed and aware of the risks before they start work but that does not absolve it of its duty to protect. The growing refugee crisis in anticipation of NATO’s withdrawal next year is already underway. How the coalition government finally deals with this issue, which juxtaposes two key policies of glorifying the military and vilifying immigrants, particularly asylum seekers, will offer a realistic measure of what it truly stands for.

*Aisha Maniar is also a freelance legal translator.

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