Britain's 'broken promises' to Afghan translators
It seemed unlikely that it could be happening again. But it was...
BAFF actively supported the campaign in 2007 on behalf of Iraqi former local staff who were in special danger because of the fact that they had worked for British forces.
The campaign was led by a BAFF member who had worked closely with Iraqi locally employedl staff such as interpreters, and was supported by other members who had served in Iraq or were serving there at the time. A serving SNCO who was a member of the BAFF Executive Council conducted a local informal 'straw poll' of other British troops in theatre, and reported that those consulted were overwhelmingly in favour of action being taken. The Federation therefore applauded (with reservations about the inflexible implementation of the Scheme) the Prime Minister's decisive intervention which at last overcame short-sighted bureaucratic indifference and brought about the introduction of the LEC Scheme.
While the situation in Afghanistan is not identical to that in southern Iraq in 2007, the following report by Channel 4's Nick Paton Walsh reveals astonishing similarities in the alleged treatment of some local staff:
It seemed unlikely that it could be happening again. But it was.
After Iraq, where months of pressure from the media and serving soldiers meant that translators working for the British army – and facing regular threats from the Iraqi insurgency – were eventually offered the chance of asylum in the UK, it seemed impossible a similar situation could be recurring here in Afghanistan.
Over the past few weeks here, we've been interviewing former interpreters for the British Army. All served in Helmand. Some were injured at work.
One man, Yusuf, who lost his eye and teeth in an explosion in Helmand on 3 June, told us how he was shipped out of British care on Camp Bastion after five days and sent to an Afghan army hospital in Kandahar.
There, doctors found on his unconscious person (he was in a coma for 22 days) his uncle's number. They rang it. And after eight days, Yusuf's family finally knew where he was. They then took him to Kabul where he says he paid for his own medical care.
The story that followed – which he told us edgily in his uncle's house (he's scared to go home at the moment) – was about his regular trips to Camp Souter, the British base where he was hired.
He asked for his salary at first – monies earned while working in Helmand. He got that. Then he asked for compensation, or his medical bills to be covered, or the sick pay normally given. He didn't get that.
He went back again and again. Doctors looked at his wounds and did what they could, but still he didn't get a prosthetic eye or new teeth, or any treatment, he says.
Nearly six months and nothing, bar, he says, the occasional gruff comment that he wasn't owed anything. This Saturday – a few days after we'd interviewed him – Yusuf was paid two months' sick pay. $1200. And that's all he's seen since losing his job and his shot at a normal life.
What seems to pain him most are the promises: the promise of medical care he says he got when he joined up; the promise of a prosthetic eye a very senior British officer appears to have made in a letter to him; the promise of money that still – after all the contact with him the British have had – has simply not come.
Yusuf's not one to keep quiet, and he was the only interpreter we talked to prepared to speak openly on camera. His story carried: other interpreters were furious about it. Eight, we were told, quit in protest at his treatment.
They were also angered at the alleged abandoning of the body of another interpreter, Tariq, earlier this year, on the battlefield. One of them we spoke to – Habib, let's call him – said he was not being treated as "a human being. I'm thinking they just treat us like a slave."
He says the resignations have now left the British Army in Helmand with lesser quality translators. And he said it in pretty good English, replete with soldiers' drawl and idioms.
The Ministry of Defence didn't take issue with how Yusuf was treated, and said that his being sent to an Afghan army hospital was standard practice. They said they didn't think there had been that many resignations (we've spoken to four of the eight, who all say the same thing). They insisted they would pay Yusuf compensation and for his medical expenses.
But this is just the complaints about mistreatment. There's another broader issue we came across. These men are terrified of the Taliban. One we interviewed was kidnapped by them in Pakistan and tortured for two months.
His captors seemed to know everything about him – how he had travelled to Peshawar for routine surgery, where he had worked. They made him pay a ransom and promise to given them the addresses of other interpreters for Nato.
When we saw him he hadn't seen his family for 21 days, as he was afraid he'd lead the Taliban to them. He had reason to be afraid. Two men on a motorbike drove up to him in the street days before we met and gave him a letter, reminding him the Taliban were still waiting for those addresses.
The stories of fear of the Taliban were universal, as was knowledge of the death of one interpreter, apparently beheaded on the road to Kandahar. The men we spoke to – many of them – had heard of the LEC programme enacted by the MoD for Iraqi interpreters. They wondered why they weren't eligible for the same thing.
The MoD had this to say about whether Afghans working as interpreters had the right to asylum claims in the UK –
"We take our responsibilities towards locally employed staff in Afghanistan very seriously and have put in place a number of measures to reduce the risks they face. The scheme established for our locally employed Iraqi staff reflected our judgement at the time that the circumstances in which they had served the UK had been uniquely difficult. The same conditions do not currently apply in Afghanistan."
- Source: Channel Four News 16 November 2009 - Britain's 'broken promises' to Afghan translators
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