Afghan Interpreters for the British Left in Limbo

Shortly after I wrote my first article on the relocation of Afghan interpreters to the UK in August 2021, a former Afghan interpreter reached out to me. Stuck in a third country for eight years as a refugee, he was awaiting resettlement in the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) introduced in December 2020. He told me that the British government had directed interpreters to contact the relevant embassies for support in their applications, yet he was initially met with silence despite multiple attempts at communication. Fortunately, two months later, I received the good news that he had reached the UK.

Despite how long he had to wait for relocation, he was one of the luckier ones because he made it out alive. While much international attention has all but shifted away from Afghanistan, thousands of people who worked alongside the British who are eligible for relocation to the UK under the ARAP are still in hiding in Afghanistan for fear of reprisal attacks by the Taliban or are refugees in third countries like Pakistan. So, by virtue of the assistance they offered the British, the lives of many Afghans remain at risk or in limbo.

As part of Refugee Week in the UK, the Southbank Centre hosted a talk on the 26 June entitled, “We Are Here, Because You Were There”. With a panel including former Afghan interpreters Sara de Jong (co-founder of the Sulha Alliance) and Andy Barnham (photographer and former British Army officer), it was part of a wider project to share the stories of former Afghan interpreters. The Sulha Alliance is a charity that has campaigned for the resettlement of Afghan interpreters and other Locally Engaged Civilians (LECs) to the UK over the past few years and continues to support those relocated.

The problem that seems to be at the heart of the relocation policy is a lack of urgency on the part of the British government, which thus leaves Afghans in the lurch. Indeed, de Jong has repeatedly highlighted the flaws of the resettlement processes. She described one “absurd situation” in which a young family’s passports were in the British Embassy, and their resettlement had been arranged, but they were told to wait for their newborn’s passport and thus were caught up in the evacuation. Incidents like this led de Jong to feel that she could not actually imagine many families making it to the UK safely. Similarly, in an article published by The Guardian, de Jong suggested that the “slowness and unresponsiveness” of the ARAP team left applicants in fear and that the application process should be “expedited” and applicants “given clear timelines.”

The suffering of Afghan interpreters and their families is by no means a thing of the past, and the government has to do more to support those newly arrived in the UK and those still stuck in Afghanistan or third countries.

But issues with this scheme are not limited to when the applicants are in third countries or in Afghanistan. The extent to which local authorities give support to resettled Afghans and their families appears to be a postcode lottery. Andy Barnham described how there was a “gap in the UK system” where people live in an “indefinite limbo.” He recalled one former interpreter who, after six months in the UK, remained in temporary accommodation that limited the extent to which he felt at ease to commit to work or his children’s education when he could be moved without much notice. Another former interpreter described at the talk how he had to share one bedroom with his whole family and was not given bedding on arrival. As refugees, these families have seen and experienced terrible things, making the UK a safe space for them. But they should not be left wanting for necessities and security, rendering them in a state of mental unease that makes the daily tasks of living difficult.

Another scheme, alongside ARAP, was introduced in January 2022 to support the resettlement of Afghans to the UK. Called the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), it prioritises people in Afghanistan who have assisted the British, campaigned for values such as democracy and women’s rights and vulnerable groups at risk such as women and girls, minorities and the LGBT+ community. It aims to resettle over 5,000 people within the first year, increasing to up to 20,000 in the future. Time will tell if this proves to be successful or if it will be laden with the same inadequacies as ARAP.

The flaws of ARAP and British local authorities in caring for Afghans have become almost wholly unjustifiable in light of the differential treatment that the government and the general public have shown towards Afghans compared to Ukrainians. To be clear, both Afghans and Ukrainians are deserving of British support, but so much attention has shifted from the former to the latter even though the British were directly involved in the events that led to the vulnerability of Afghans. The controversial government scheme to send asylum seekers who have entered the UK illegally to Rwanda for processing initially embodied this double standard. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said in May that sending Ukrainian refugees to Rwanda was “simply not going to happen”. Although Johnson would later backtrack on this in June, this initial remark seems to suggest that the government considered it unthinkable for Ukrainian refugees to be treated this way, but not for refugees from other countries, like Afghanistan.

The government also launched a scheme in March 2022 called “Homes for Ukraine” to allow individuals and organisations to register their interest in becoming sponsors, giving Ukrainians houses or a spare room for at least six months. By April, 200,000 people had signed up for the scheme. In contrast, the government’s “Afghanistan Housing Portal” scheme included the essential criteria that the property must have no shared facilities and that it had to be available for at least 12 months, which makes giving a home to an Afghan a far greater commitment than to a Ukrainian, thus limiting the pool of potential sponsors. The plight of Ukrainians has also become a more widespread source of public sympathy than the plight of Afghans, with Ukrainian flags flying on countless streets and symbols of solidarity worn as pins. This is despite the fact that the Taliban have confirmed some Western fears regarding their ongoing human rights record, particularly regarding the prevention of girls receiving an education and women returning to work, casting even greater doubts on their legitimacy to rule.

In sum, then, the suffering of Afghan interpreters and their families is by no means a thing of the past, and the government has to do more to support those newly arrived in the UK and those still stuck in Afghanistan or third countries. While Ukrainian refugees deserve support and relocation equally as a matter of principle, Afghans cannot be forgotten. To abandon the Afghans who served alongside the British and not fully support those who have relocated to the UK would merely represent another moral failing after the hasty departure from Afghanistan that left vulnerable people stranded in a precarious position.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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