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Afghan Interpreters: UK Relocation

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Goldie on 28 April (HL15285), what plans they have for considering applications for relocation to the United Kingdom from the 15 Afghan interpreters who have fled to a third country.

My Lords, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy for locally engaged staff requires applicants to be in Afghanistan, because that is where they are likely to face the greatest risk. The Government keep the Immigration Rules under regular reviews, and officials from the Ministry of Defence continue to work with the Home Office to consider options to support those under threat. We will always consider exceptionally compelling and compassionate circumstances on a case-by-case basis, as demonstrated by recent relocations from third countries.

My Lords, although I thank the Government for and congratulate them on the excellent programme that they are currently rolling out with the RAF to rescue the majority of our Afghan interpreters, I implore the Minister to put this last piece of the jigsaw in place and offer the same chance of relocation to the 15 who arguably need it most, having been so terrorised by Taliban threats that they fled to a third country. There is a precedent—we rescued one interpreter stranded in Greece—so will the Government immediately establish channels of communication with the 15 so that their cases can also be assessed?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I also thank her for her continuing interest in this issue. As she said, a relocation has already taken place. When I use the phrases “case-by-case basis” and “exceptionally compelling and compassionate circumstances”, these are not empty words because I can tell the noble Baroness by way of reassurance that we are currently investigating a request from another third country; however, for reasons of security, I cannot provide her with more specific information. What I can say is that there is easy access—I checked this out for myself this morning by going online and on to the government website—to the scheme for those who may be in third countries. They can get advice on an online advice link and a telephone number is also provided. We are doing everything we possibly can to facilitate the provision of information.

My Lords, much of the progress that has been made on this cause is down to the championship of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. I acknowledge that. Equally, I am delighted that Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, has committed not only to speeding up the repatriation process but to widening the criteria. However, our duty of care does not end when the interpreters arrive in the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend the Minister simply confirm not only that appropriate accommodation will be found for them but that this can be done without a detrimental impact on the availability for our service families?

Yes, I can reassure my noble friend. The leasing of MoD houses to local authorities to assist the Afghan families is a short-term expediency until appropriate properties for longer-term resettlement can be found. From the point of view of the supply of service families accommodation to service families, there should be no effect because the houses that have been identified to local authorities for this provision are surplus to the MoD’s present requirement. They are excess stock that would otherwise have been disposed of and are not required in the short term.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has, at least in recent years, been at pains to treat locally employed interpreters justly and with sympathy. It has become apparent, however, that since contracting out the provision of interpreting services the Government have found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the continuation of such treatment. Moral considerations aside, what impact does the Minister think this might have on the effective conduct of future land operations where we need local assistance in dangerous circumstances?

The noble and gallant Lord makes an important point about seeking to retain the confidence of locally employed individuals whom we may seek to engage in any future global activity. It is very clear from what we are discussing this morning that the UK Government have stepped up to the plate and recognised the debt of gratitude we owe to these locally employed staff. The relocation and assistance policy, particularly as it is now being accelerated, is a reflection of the seriousness with which we take that duty.

My Lords, I think it was Plato who said that only the dead have seen the end of war, and there is no doubt that our service men and women will continue to be involved in fighting in foreign lands. Therefore, as well as the moral imperative to look after locals who have assisted us and risked their lives, there is also a self-interest, in that we will continue to need such people to help us in the future. How do other NATO nations treat similar interpreters, and has there been any discussion within NATO to try to get a common policy on how these people are handled?

I would say to the noble Lord, in alignment with my answer to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, that the UK has very much proceeded on the basis of what it considered its obligation as a sovereign state to be. That is why we have proceeded with our particular scheme. I understand that the United States has a scheme. I am not privy to the details of that scheme but we are in close contact with our US colleagues. We understand that they are not only running a similar relocation programme but doing so under their special immigration visa scheme.

My Lords, the relocation and assistance policy came in on 1 April, and is expected to speed up alongside the withdrawal of NATO troops. In light of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, does the Minister believe that there will be sufficient funding, and that the policy is sufficiently wide to support all the people to whom we owe a duty —including interpreters, but also other local supporters?

As the noble Baroness will be aware, the scheme under discussion will remain in force indefinitely, because we consider it our obligation to identify those who are at threat and to act appropriately. We remain committed to working with the United States, and our NATO allies and international partners, to support Afghanistan, and to the ongoing training and mentoring of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. We will continue to provide the ANDSF with financial sustainment support until at least 2024.

We all welcome the Afghan relocation and assistance policy, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing it. However, the Minister will know, as will all Members of this House, that we have a moral responsibility to those who have helped us, both those who are still in Afghanistan and those who have left. Given that we all want to do the right thing, will the criteria for the Afghan relocation and assistance policy be updated if the situation on the ground changes, either in Afghanistan or in third countries? Will the Minister look into that, so that we do the right thing by all those who have helped us?

Yes, I agree in essence with the sentiment articulated by the noble Lord. We have made clear what this particular scheme is, and the criteria that surround its operation and application. We remain focused on relocating those who are most at risk, and we will review our plans should there be a rapid deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan.

My Lords, it is absolutely right that we make provision for those who served alongside us, but we must not forget all the Afghan people who will continue to live in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, a highly respected body, is calling for a UN fact-finding mission to investigate the terror attacks and assassinations of the last 18 months, which have seen women, minorities and people in public life targeted and murdered in attacks that are often unclaimed, and for which accountability is entirely lacking. Will Her Majesty’s Government support this call and push for the establishment of a fact-finding mission in the UN Human Rights Council?

What we have undertaken to do—I wish to reassure my noble friend about this—is to remain involved in ongoing discussions with the United States and international allies regarding the future of operations in Afghanistan, although we have agreed that the NATO Resolute Support mission will have completely withdrawn within a few months. I shall not comment on operational details beyond that, for security reasons, but I can say to her that intensive diplomatic activity will remain. The embassy in Kabul is very active and we exercise considerable influence.

My Lords, is the Minister confident that the Home Office will co-operate with her ministry in showing the same degree of compassion and flexibility that she has shown in the granting of visas for relocation to the United Kingdom for those interpreters? In view of yesterday’s reports about the dangers to our diplomatic and defence staff at the embassy in Kabul, which she has just referred to, can she reassure us that we are taking urgent steps to ensure their safety, and that of international charity and aid workers? Presumably, there is also a continuing need to support interpreters while we have a presence in Kabul.

We are very conscious of the security implications, particularly for our personnel within Afghanistan, not least within the embassy, and we constantly review that security situation. I wish to reassure the noble Lord that there is a very good relationship between the MoD and the Home Office. Our officials are regularly in touch, and there is regular and robust collaboration between government departments—not just these two departments, but also with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question, and I call the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.