Abandoned by the British, Afghan interpreters explain how they wait for years seeking safety

The last British troops leave Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Afghanistan in October 2014. Ben Birchall/PA Archive

When the British began to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan in 2012, the Afghan civilians they employed as interpreters, cooks and security guards, became even more exposed to threats, losing the limited protection that military bases granted them.

In recognition of their work and its risks, the UK government put two schemes in place. The first, an ex-gratia (redundancy) scheme, was meant exclusively for locally engaged civilians who had been in employment for a minimum of 12 months, and were made redundant on or after December 19, 2012. The second scheme, the so-called Intimidation Scheme, was open to all Afghan civilians whose safety was threatened because of their employment with the UK.

Now a new report published by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee has denounced the government’s failure to protect these local Afghans under the Intimidation Scheme. It was based on written and oral evidence by former locally engaged civilians, veterans, journalists, politicians and me, as a researcher.

Based on the fact that none of the 401 applicants to the Intimidation Scheme had been relocated to the UK by February 2017 and only 35 were granted a financial reward for relocation within Afghanistan, the committee characterised the scheme as “hitherto useless”. It also called upon the government – not without a sense of irony – to:

Abandon its policy of leaving former interpreters and other loyal personnel dangerously exposed in a country deemed too dangerous for those charged with assessing their claims to venture out from their bases in order to do so.

Historical parallels

In the past, other Western states have relied on local staff for auxiliary and military services, and faced embarrassment about their protection after withdrawal. While the Americans airlifted some of their local employees out of Saigon in 1975, Frank Snepp, the CIA’s chief strategy analyst in Vietnam, stated two years later in his book Decent Interval that the way “agents, friends and collaborators” were betrayed was “an institutional disgrace”.

During his campaign for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron compared the situation faced by Afghan interpreters with the historical betrayal of the Harkis, Algerian employees of the French army in combat functions. An estimated 75,000 to 150,000 Harkis were killed following the French withdrawal at the end of the Algerian War of Independence in the early 1960s.

Highlighting these parallels adds further weight to the committee’s recommendations. The many young Afghan interpreters and other locally employed civilians who I met as part of my research in the UK, however, already have a large enough burden to carry without history on their shoulders.

Few options but to flee

Some 1,150 locally engaged civilians and their dependants who qualified under the Redundancy Scheme were resettled in the UK. Others, such as Hamid and Mohammed – not their real names – left Afghanistan independently in the hope of reaching the UK to claim asylum. Their employment dates did not match the criteria of the Redundancy Scheme, and they recognised that the Intimidation Scheme only existed on paper.

Hamid, a former Afghan civilian employed by the British in his twenties, who I met in southern England in the shop where he worked, told me that he quickly realised that the only way he could get himself to safety was to take a treacherous route to Europe via Iran, Turkey and Greece. He described the route as a three-month struggle with no food, no drink and no money:

Listen, there were a lot of interpreters who worked there for longer, who stayed there for longer, who lost their legs, the British knew that. But they didn’t care. So why would they bring me? As an intact person?

Hamid had actually spent four years living as an asylum seeker when he was still a minor. In 2010, his then temporary status was not extended and he was deported back to Afghanistan. Needing a job, he applied to work for the British military. The next day the young man with his perfect mix of Afghan and British culture, was sent to work in Helmand. But when he arrived back to the UK in 2012 for the second time, he had his claim for asylum initially rejected because he had already been deported once before.

I met Mohammed, another former civilian employed by the British, in the flat in a northern English city where some friends had given him a sofa to sleep on. He didn’t have a room for himself as he became homeless after his asylum case was refused by the Home Office and state support stopped. Keeping me warm with a heater and Afghan tea, he told me about his nightmares about the Taliban and about his journey to the UK on the back of a lorry.

A few days before I met him, he had finally been granted refugee status following an appeal. When I asked him if he regretted working for the British in Afghanistan, he told me:

No, I have no regrets about that. The regret are these four years (of waiting for a positive decision on my asylum claim). Why did I spend four years between death and life? No one can give me those four years back. That’s gone.

For those locally employed civilians still in danger in Afghanistan and those facing deportation from the UK because of rejected asylum claims, time is even more of essence.

History shows us that changes in policy and formal apologies do not always come quickly. In this case, however, there is clear evidence of the scheme’s failure. The committee recommended that the government “adopt a more needs-based approach”, which takes seriously the recurrent insecurity faced by former locally employed civilians and looks to apply the existing conditions of the Intimidation Scheme in “a looser and more sympathetic way”. International relocation shouldn’t be a last resort, out of reach for all – and there is no excuse for further lives being wasted away.