Last week, four Afghan interpreters renewed their plea to the United Kingdom for asylum. The four worked for the British army in Afghanistan for several years and received commendation for their work but were denied U.K. asylum due to a policy restricting relocation to only the time frame after they served. They are currently in hiding after receiving death threats from the Taliban.
With this renewed plea, Afghan interpreters and their advocates have condemned the U.K.’s restrictive asylum policy in the face of the Taliban’s known targeting of Afghan interpreters who have worked for foreign countries. Simon Diggins, a former British colonel who has been campaigning on behalf of Afghan interpreters, said to Al Jazeera: “I think we treat them very badly. Interpreters gave their lives for us, people have been injured, they’ve been killed and without them, we couldn’t have done our work in Afghanistan.” More generally, interpreters themselves have expressed disappointment and fear for their lives. “I’m scared. I’m sure that if they [the Taliban] catch me, they will kill me,” one interpreter said to Al Jazeera. “They will not talk to us. They will kill us straight away,” another said. One interpreter stated to Al Jazeera: “Where are the human rights? Where are the high-ranking officers? They don’t care about us. Why doesn’t the British parliament care about us?” Previously, a report by Amnesty International highlighted Afghan interpreters’ higher risk of persecution in Afghanistan and called for European governments to implement a moratorium on deportations to Afghanistan until the situation improved. A 2018 U.K. House of Commons Defence Committee report titled “Lost in Translation? Afghan Interpreters and Other Locally Employed Civilians” criticized the government’s policies toward interpreters as having been somewhat limited or having “dismally failed to give any meaningful assurance of protection” from the Taliban and the Islamic State.
The U.K. should reconsider asylum for these four interpreters. Not only so, the U.K. should reform its restrictive asylum policies and reexamine its stance toward Afghan military interpreters in general, as the case of these four interpreters is not unique. The four Afghan interpreters’ denied asylum due to a restriction on the time frame of service is not acceptable in the face of the interpreters’ sacrifice in working for the British army and the Taliban’s death threats. The denial of asylum to these four interpreters—and interpreters more broadly—represents a disregard for individuals’ right to life, as they must live in fear for their lives and their families’ lives. Rather than demonstrating gratitude and providing relief and safety for Afghan interpreters, the U.K.’s restrictive policy enables the Taliban’s systematic targeting and killing of interpreters—it must be changed.
Afghan interpreters, serving alongside and for foreign militaries, often face tremendously dangerous situations. Additionally, they are targeted by the Taliban for “misbehaving” and being “national traitors,” as stated in a 2018 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report. For instance, U.S. forces interpreter Sakhidad Afghan, who was awaiting a U.S. visa, was abducted, tortured, and killed by the Taliban in 2015. Despite the dangers Afghan foreign military interpreters face, denial of asylum is not new. UNHCR asylum-seekers guidelines require a particularly careful examination of possible risk to interpreters, yet countries such as the U.K. and U.S. have allowed only a relatively small fraction of Afghan civilians, including interpreters, to be granted asylum, in seeming disregard of the guidelines—around 1150 Afghan civilians have settled in the U.K., out of the 7000 employed by British forces in Afghanistan, according to Al Jazeera. In recent years, many interpreters have reached out to the U.K. and U.S. governments, only to be rejected. In 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stopped scheduling interviews for Afghan interpreters to apply to emigrate to the U.S., and the issuance of special U.S. visas has dropped. Meanwhile, the lives of Afghan military interpreters continue to be at risk.
These four Afghan interpreters’ renewed pleas represent an opportunity for the U.K. and other countries such as the U.S. working with Afghan interpreters to think even more critically about the ways in which their asylum policies help to perpetuate and enable human rights violations committed by a violent insurgent force. They also represent an opportunity to implement change that abides by international guidelines and takes into greater account Afghan foreign military interpreters’ increased vulnerability and risk for persecution by the Taliban. In addition to being tied to human rights violations, countries’ restrictive policies surrounding asylum for Afghan military interpreters lead to the erosion of trust with allies in Afghanistan, sending signals of abandonment and betrayal and destabilizing relations with those with whom countries such as the U.K. and U.S. should be cooperating in efforts to stabilize and bring lasting peace to the country and region. Ultimately, these pleas represent an opportunity to achieve greater peace and stability in human and state relations and the international system as a whole.