“It seems to me that interpreters are like priests; they are mediators and help connect cultures and communities,” said the Rt Rev’d Alastair Redfern, Bishop of Derby, speaking in a House of Lords debate on the protection of foreign interpreters and military translators who routinely risk their lives to aid the British military in war zones. “In this case, they helped campaigns unfold properly and as planned. It is a key role.. a very risky role, on the front line.. and we must be thankful for the courage and commitment of those who sign up for it,” he explained.
Indeed we must. They are the forgotten heroes of our military exploits, especially in the ongoing ‘War on Terror’. They are like the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, deciphering political meaning and interpreting theological nuance: it is a secret intelligence, hence the need for pixelated anonymity. There’s only around 600 of them in total, and just 260 of these have applied for asylum in the UK – far fewer than the 583,000 who immigrated to the UK in 2014, most of whom, according to the ONS, did so “for work-related reasons”. Why do we welcome hundreds of thousands of ephemeral economic migrants to our shores every year, but abandon those who dedicate many years of faithful and loyal service to British military objectives? Who is the patriot? Who is the dependable friend and ally? Who is ‘one of us’?
Those who aid us in Islamic countries are particularly vulnerable to acts of vengeance against the “the infidel’s translators”. The Taliban especially are quite fond of beheading Western spies who betray Allah and sabotage jihad to aid the enemy conquest.
The Bishop of Derby pointed out that other countries are far more generous to their military translators: “Australia and the US seem to be offering quite a good deal compared to the one that we seem to have on the table,” he observed. In fact, the US and Germany routinely grant their interpreters asylum, mindful of the fact that their linguistic mission wins them no friends at home, and they risk their lives every day in exactly the same way as US and German armed forces, with the same bullets flying past their heads and identical bombs exploding beneath their feet. But we leave ours to fates worse than death, quite literally – to terror, torture, and the unimaginable anguish of having their children abducted, tormented and killed.
The British Government is betraying men like Popal, who was arrested in Iran and subsequently tortured and murdered, along with four other military translators. He was only 26, and served with the Parachute Regiment in Helmand. Yes, of course he knew the risks. But he clearly wanted to fight on the side of the good. God knows how many British lives he saved by negotiating behind enemy lines, intercepting communications and liaising with military intelligence. We have no legal obligation to return the good: there is no military contract. But there ought to be. Those who help us contend against the forces of evil by endangering their own lives deserve our protection in return. That is basic morality: do unto others, etc, as the Bishop explains:
The first key principle was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and it is moral obligation. We cannot suddenly stop caring for people who have played a key role in the war effort and been part of the enterprise, or stop our relationship when it suits us. We have created the relationship, we have worked together, and we have a moral obligation—an honour, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said—to fulfil.
But we don’t honour the obligation. We use the words that roll off the tips of their tongues, then hand them over to the enemy to be bound, gagged, and have their tongues cut out. If thousands of unqualified immigrants can come to Britain year after year, ostensibly to find employment, why can’t we welcome a few hundred expert linguists “for work-related reasons”?
Popal’s brother has also been killed. You can be an “infidel translator” by association. Their relatives are considered fair targets for summary meetings with knuckle-dusters. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), therre has been a considerable increase in the number of “targeted assassinations” of “civilians perceived to be supporting international military forces and/or the Afghan Government”. According to the 2010 ‘Taliban Code of Conduct’ (yes, according to UNAMA there is such a thing), “the infidel’s translators” should be put to death. It is treacherous for them to live where they grew up, and equally treacherous for them to try and flee, often paying people smugglers thousands of dollars for a ticket to anywhere, but preferably Germany.
Apparently HM Government provides a secure ‘Intimidation Investigation Unit’ in Kabul, which functions as a kind of advisory embassy for harassed Afghans in the employ of British forces. But, you know bureaucracy. The interpreters and translators fill out their forms in perfect English, and they tell of the threats, beatings and vandalism visited upon them and their property. And then the forms are assessed by clerical staff, and reassessed by their managers in accordance with the ‘Intimidation of Locally Employed Staff: Policy Framework’. And a month later the applicant might be invited to plead their case to trained officials, who must then write a report based on traffic-light categorisation, which must then be corroborated by their managers. And months after that comes an answer – which is usually negative. No explanation: just ‘No’. It beggars belief that military translators who suffer bullying and death threats are classified ‘green’, but no one has to justify the decision, from which there is no appeal.
General Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the British Army, was among those who wrote an open letter to The Times a few years ago, arguing that Britain had a “moral obligation” to do more. And HM Government heard the plea and did do more. They provided aid through the ‘Ex-Gratia Scheme‘, but, again, it’s bureaucratic. The military translators fill in forms, specifying whether they want cash, retraining or asylum. But the latter option is available only to those who were actively employed by British forces on December 19th 2012, when the Prime Minister announced his intention to withdraw from Afghanistan. And that employment had to have been for a minimum of 12 months, and “frontline”. God help those military translators who had worked for a decade up to December 18th 2012; or those who had worked for just 11 months by December 19th but were continuing for the next three years; or those who had been beavering away with words and communication behind the frontline. None of them qualify for asylum in the UK.
Sorry, that’s not quite true: two have qualified. Not even the ‘Taliban Code of Conduct’ can beat British bureaucracy.
Conservative MPs agree with the Bishop of Derby. Richard Benyon, a member of the Defence Select Committee, said: “People find it hard to accept that we provide visas for economic migrants but do not give asylum for those who are in harm’s way because of the brave work they have done to support our troops.” Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said: “It seems at best bizarre and at worse somewhat callous to refuse these guys a safe haven when others who have given no such service are allowed into Britain. These are people who have really made a critical difference to our Armed Forces.”
Well, quite. It’s obviously cheaper to leave our military translators to the Taliban.
But not much.