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Iraqi Interpreters

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 14 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to grant visas to Iraqi interpreters who worked with British armed forces in Iraq.

My Lords, the Government owe a debt of gratitude to interpreters who have risked their lives working alongside UK Armed Forces. Iraqi interpreters were supported through the locally employed staff assistance scheme, which was established in 2007 and closed in 2016, during which time over 1,300 people were resettled here. Anyone now wishing to relocate to the UK may make use of the relevant routes in the wider immigration system, provided that they meet the requirements.

My Lords, eight of our Iraqi interpreters had their personal data breached some months ago, making them more vulnerable than ever to the hostility of the Iraqi Government and Iranian-backed militia. I know that the MoD is certain that we were not responsible for any breach but, nevertheless, the interpreters have no access to our embassy and the online visa application form takes them to a message saying, “Page not found”. Will the noble Baroness agree that, with the US set to withdraw by the end of this year, and with the lessons of relocating Afghan interpreters so fresh in our minds, now is the time to be proactive, to upgrade the risk assessment and to allow these eight interpreters to come to safety in the UK?

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of the noble Baroness’s question, which is that anyone who helps us should in turn be afforded the right for us to help them. Obviously, Iraq and Afghanistan were two entirely different situations but, nevertheless, people can come through a number of routes. I know that the noble Baroness is in frequent contact with my noble friend Lady Goldie, from an MoD point of view.

My Lords, the whole House is in debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for the persistence with which she has fought for interpreters over some years. It would be appalling if the eight, whose predicament she has outlined so forcefully, were not admitted and if their case were not dealt with as a matter of urgency. Can I have my noble friend’s assurance that that will happen?

My Lords, I gave that in my first response to the noble Baroness. I was also indebted to her and the whole House during the Afghanistan evacuation. I had all sorts of cases. Of course, we will do everything for those who gave their time and, sometimes, their lives for us.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have forfeited any right to have our word taken as our bond, through our shameful treatment of those whom we employed as interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My Lords, I would not use the word “shameful”. In total, from Iraq, we relocated, with their families, 1,328 people. Of course, 7,000 Afghan nationals have now been resettled in the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, otherwise known as ARAP.

My Lords, given the circumstances, surely the eight in question could be granted visas today or tomorrow. More generally, it would seem that successive Governments have been quicker to assert human rights violations as justification for war over there than as justification for refuge over here. Might this not be a moment to legislate to give clearer statutory obligations on future Governments in relation to those foreign nationals who put themselves in harm’s way in support of the British state and its military operations?

As I say, I agreed with the premise of the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. We must also guard against the people whom we settle here not being thoroughly vetted, because, clearly, we have a security obligation to this country as well, but the premise in relation to those who have given their lives and time for us in war-torn countries is absolutely right.

My Lords, during the Recess, I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina on a trip led by Colonel Bob Stewart. During the Bosnian war, one of his interpreters was killed, he believes, for uttering the words that he was speaking. That demonstrates clearly how vulnerable interpreters are, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. ARAP might be a great scheme, but it is too slow, and the communication between the Home Office, the MoD and the FCDO has been extremely protracted. What can the Minister say about speeding up the processes and ensuring that the Iraqi eight and any Afghan interpreters can be dealt with more swiftly so that their lives are not put in further jeopardy?

My Lords, due to the very nature of a war-torn country, these processes are not swift. We have gone above and beyond what is necessary to try to get as many people out as quickly as possible. I, too, have been to Bosnia and I recognise the points that the noble Baroness makes.

The Minister has just told this Chamber that we owe the people who have helped us a debt of gratitude and that this country will not abandon those who have helped us in areas such as Iraq, so why are these eight translators still trapped in Iraq, despite the fact that this has been raised in numerous Questions and debates? Why are they still there, if we owe them a debt of gratitude and will help those who have helped us? This Chamber wants to know when those eight and their families will be given safe routes to this country and repaid the debt that we owe them.

As I say, anyone from Iraq now wanting to come to the UK can apply for a visa through the wider immigration system and applications can be made through the UK’s resettlement schemes, which offer a route for UNHCR-recognised refugees in need of our protection who have fled their country of origin.

Does the Minister agree that, where an overseas individual has worked for the British Armed Forces, they should in principle enjoy the protection of the British Armed Forces, particularly where they have worked as an interpreter?

The ARAP scheme and the locally employed staff assistance scheme in Iraq were set up for precisely that purpose.

My Lords, the situation goes beyond just the military theatres. We have a debt of gratitude to locally employed specialists, particularly when services beyond the call of duty are called on in extreme and hostile environments. Would the Minister concede that the UK has too many instances of regrettable form, whereby we benefit but then, too often, hang them out to dry? What assessment has been made of the impact of perception and engagement on recruitment? Should official status be upped, whereby the protection of the state is afforded from the outset, commensurate with people’s services to the UK? This would be a drop in the oceanic moral obligation.

My Lords, I have just given the figures for both ARAP and the LESAS in Iraq. I do not think it could be said that we hang out to dry those people who help this country; I think we are very generous. It is true that in the theatre of war and the aftermath things often do not go as smoothly as they could, but we have done all we can and more.

My Lords, the fate of the Afghan interpreters and other people who have assisted us there has already fallen off the news agenda and our front pages. That applies with greater force, I suspect, to those from Iraq. Do Her Majesty’s Government have a policy of actively looking for people who need our help, or is a passive approach taken to this question?

My Lords, we have communication lines for people to access. Clearly, Afghanistan is a far more difficult environment than Iraq at this time, but, yes, we reach out to people.

My Lords, it has been reported in the past 24 hours that Afghan special intelligence unit officers who were trained, funded and supervised by United Kingdom officials in Afghanistan have been abandoned following the end of the airlift at the beginning of September. Will the Government look into this as a matter of urgency and ensure that these people, who are in significant danger in Afghanistan today, have the opportunity to come either to the United Kingdom or to another safe place as soon as possible?

The noble Lord is talking about Afghan citizens. Clearly, Afghanistan is an incredibly difficult environment at this point in time, but, as I have reiterated in previous answers, we are doing all we can to help those people who need our ongoing assistance.