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Has Britain Abandoned Its Afghan Interpreters?

As the UK pulls out of Afghanistan, it has been accused of leaving the locals who served its forces to face threats of retribution and even death. Next month, three former employees take their case to the British High Court.

by Katie Engelhart
Nov 13 2014, 3:40pm

Image via Sean Clee/MOD

Early in 2013, an Afghan man with the initials A.L. received an anonymous call. "Hey, you infidels spy," charged a voice on the other end of the line. "We have found your place [and] very soon you will see your punishment." On February 5, A.L. (whose full name is withheld for security reasons) forwarded the warning to his lawyers in Britain.

A.L. was employed as an interpreter for the UK armed forces between 2006-2012. His tasks were varied, but included the patrolling of active combat environments with British soldiers. In February 2012, A.L. resigned from his position, after members of the Taliban accused him of spying for foreign forces and threatened retribution. But the sinister calls — and texts and letters — continued. Recently, an anonymous message warned that, with international forces soon to withdraw from Afghanistan for good, A.L.'s "infidel friends" would no longer be around to help him.

Now, A.L. is one of three Afghan interpreters who have launched a High Court case against the British government — alleging that Britain has effectively abandoned the civilians who served its forces from 2001 until last month, when UK combat operations in Afghanistan were called to a close. Afghans who work for foreign forces are frequent targets of Taliban assault.

Britain's Last Troops Leave Afghanistan After 13 Years of Fighting. Read more here.

On Wednesday, The Times reported that only one Afghan civilian who worked for British forces has been deemed sufficiently at risk for relocation to the UK, under Britain's so-called "intimidation policy" — despite hundreds of pleas for help. Over 200 Afghan civilians have filed reports of intimidation since July 2013.

The report adds to an ongoing — and, in the halls of parliament, vociferous — debate about what Britain owes to locals who serve them in foreign combat missions.

Around 3,800 Afghan civilians have been employed by British forces since 2001, a Ministry of Defense (MOD) spokesperson told VICE News. It is well reported that these Afghans, many of whom served as interpreters, are now targets of militant attacks — and, in some cases, killings. According to the 2010 Taliban Code of Conduct — cited by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan — Afghans who work for foreign troops, including "the infidel's translators," should receive the death penalty.

Britain operates two separate assistance schemes for its Afghan staff members. One — the "Ex-Gratia Scheme" —was implemented in June 2013, under pressure from parliamentarians and civil rights groups. The one-off assistance program offers training and financial support—and, in some cases, resettlement in the UK for staff members and their families.

An MOD spokesperson told VICE News that as of 31 October 2014, around 350 LECs (Locally Employed Civilians) have applied for relocation under the scheme. 87 visas have been issued, and 31 Afghans have already arrived in the UK.

But critics charge that the package is woefully insufficient. The program applies only to Afghans who were working for British forces on 19 December 2012, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced the drawdown of UK forces. Eligible applicants also need to have served for at least 12 months and worked in frontline positions. This excludes many.

"The deal may sound great in London, but could be lethal in Kabul," said the Avaaz campaign network, when the scheme was announced.

Afghans who don't make the cut for the Ex-Gratia scheme can seek help under Britain's "intimidation policy," introduced in December 2012, which offers help to former staff members who are in danger because of their service to Britain. But Wednesday's report revealed that only one Afghan has been resettled in Britain under this program.

The Afghan Interpreters. Watch video here.

Indeed, the intimidation policy specifies that relocation is limited to "the most exceptional" circumstances. In other cases, Afghans are relocated within Afghanistan — or simply advised to change their phone numbers or route to work.

A.L. does not qualify for the Ex-Gratia scheme, since he stopped working for British forces before December 2012. According to court documents submitted to the High Court by his lawyers, he was assessed for the intimidation scheme by British officials, but was ultimately judged not to be "experiencing real and substantial risk to his personal safety."

His case seeks to push the MOD into resettling more Afghan staff members in Britain. His lawyer Rosa Curling, of Britain's Leigh Day firm, said it is due to open at the High Court of Justice in early December.

"Strangely, it's a discrimination case that we're running," Curling told VICE News. She noted that the Britain implemented a sizeable relocation program for Iraqi translators who served British forces in Iraq — and asked why it did not create a similar scheme for Afghans. "It's absolutely outrageous. It's unlawful. You can't treat a very similar group of people different only the basis of their nationality."

Another claimant in the case, Mohammed Rafi Hotak, fled to the UK several years ago. After 18 months, he was granted asylum. But he was not provided help in moving or resettling, as he would have been under a formal relocation scheme. And under asylum provisions, his lawyers say that his family is unable to join him.

British officials have revealed little about why their programs for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters vary so substantially. But UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond has noted that the Afghan government "wants to encourage local staff to stay in Afghanistan." In May 2013, Cameron told BBC Radio 4 that "we should do everything we can to encourage talented Afghans to stay in their country and contribute to it."

Baroness Jean Coussins, of the UK House of Lords, told VICE News that the existing intimidation scheme should be applied on a more "generous and flexible" basis. She is calling for "a very urgent review" of cases in Afghanistan. "It needs to be urgent because when all the troops are withdrawn by the end of the year, we can expect the interpreters to be in an even more vulnerable position than they are in now."

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart

Afghanistan: What We're Leaving Behind. Watch video here.

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