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Learning From Iraq: Why We Need Action Not Words From Cameron Over Afghan Interpreters

06/05/2013 18:24 BST | Updated 06/07/2013 10:12 BST
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Wrong footed by public opinion, the UK government wrings its hands again by evading its legal responsibility to offer protection and safety for Afghan interpreters embedded alongside British forces during the conflict in Afghanistan.

At least 20 Afghan interpreters have so far been killed in the line of duty, many more have been injured. They and their families now live in constant fear of death threats from the Taliban, who have declared them to be targets for collaborating with the allied forces.

According to a recent YouGov poll for think tank British Future, 60% of the public who expressed an opinion believe the government should provide protection for this group by allowing them the right to resettle in the UK.

But the Coalition government's increasingly harsh rhetoric on immigration and asylum seems more motivated by the emerging electoral threat posed by Ukip rather than upholding this country's obligation under international law as a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

We have a legal duty to provide protection to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution; a principle that the British public broadly supports, even if politicians and the officials who carry out their mandate don't.

The lack of clear leadership around a decision to put a programme in place to manage the protection concerns of this brave group of Afghans is shameful. It also damages the reputation of the UK in the eyes of our NATO partners, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, who have already introduced measures to aid the relocation and resettlement of their interpreters.

David Cameron has been adept at promoting the international business reputation of the UK overseas but his inability to grasp the only viable and humane solution to the matter is startling. Out of step with our NATO partners, he is also out of touch with public opinion on this increasingly urgent issue. Over 80,000 people have so far signed a petition organised by campaign group Avaaz calling on the British government to grant asylum to the interpreters.

As public opinion becomes more outraged by Cameron's reluctance to offer them protection in the UK, people are calling for action, not words.

The pressure on Cameron is mounting. Lawyers acting for several Afghans have recently launched a legal challenge against the government to ensure that they are offered equal treatment as Iraqi interpreters who worked alongside British forces and faced the same threats at the end of the conflict there.

At the time, Australia, the US and other European countries tackled the issue head on by offering protection in their countries to those who had put their lives on the line to support their armed forces whilst Gordon Brown's administration dragged it's feet on the issue. Eventually, the government bowed to public pressure and did the right thing, but only begrudgingly which led to further resentment amongst the interpreters themselves, the UN and wider international community.

Many Iraqis who arrived in the late 2000s told us they were perplexed and unhappy about the way they were treated by the UK government. They were angry at the length of time it had taken to offer them protection and safety. This wasn't helped by the fact that many received very little support. The situation was serious enough to require a junior FCO minister, Ivan Lewis, to make an emergency visit to address their concerns in person.

Refugee Action has a 30 year history helping refugees to resettle in the UK. This began with the Vietnamese, more commonly known as the 'boat people' and later working with Bosnians and Kosovans during the fallout from the Balkan conflict.

We also provide specialist support to around two-thirds of the refugees resettling to the UK under the government's highly regarded Gateway Protection Programme. This humanitarian assistance programme takes refugees from desperate situations around the globe and offers them an opportunity to rebuild their lives. These refugees are some of the most vulnerable: women at risk from further sexual violence or exploitation, children or elderly refugees with health problems or others assessed as being so vulnerable by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that their lives are in urgent danger. It's not uncommon for Refugee Action to work with families or individuals who have been in refugee camps for 20 or 30 years.

It's an amazing programme, genuinely providing protection to those in most need.

As in the case of the Iraqi interpreters and locally engaged-staff, it is easy to see why the government may view this as an attractive option by offering their Afghan counterparts resettlement via this programme. This is not the solution. The UK makes only 750 places available each year for the Gateway Protection Programme. It should therefore not be seen as a short-term sticking plaster to solve this government's dilemma over the Afghan interpreters' plea for protection.

So, what needs to happen? Firstly, David Cameron needs to assert his leadership and make the right decision. Refugee Action believes that he should offer the Afghans a simple, informed choice of a relocation package within Afghanistan or the opportunity to take up the offer of protection within a time frame that does not put them at risk. It is the Afghan interpreters themselves who are best placed to understand which option works best for them.

In taking the latter option, Cameron needs to recognise that this is not easy. The resettlement journey for anyone fleeing persecution is a complex and arduous one. If we are to learn from the lessons of the Iraqi experience, a fully-funded package of support, similar to that offered under the Gateway Protection Programme, must be provided to aid the relocation, resettlement and successful integration of Afghan interpreters and their families into British Society.

Refugee Action is ready to meet that challenge, as we have on many previous occasions, is the Prime Minister? Let's hope he will put an end to his political posturing and do the right thing by offering protection to the interpreters who worked on the front line with British forces in Afghanistan. Like all individuals seeking sanctuary in the UK, Afghan interpreters and their immediate family deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We must not abandon them in their hour of need.