Sara de Jong
Recognising migrants as political actors is one important way to work against the representation of migrants as voiceless victims. Whereas institutional asylum frameworks create a circumscribed space for migrants’ voices, in which “asylum seekers are charged with narrating themselves in a condition of sanctuary” (Farrier 2012: 1), migrants have entered and created various other platforms to share their stories and demands. In these political spaces, migrants do not merely articulate personal grievances, but have added to a chorus of protest against undignified treatment. Former military interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq, who had to leave their countries because their employment with Western forces left them exposed to threats, constitute a distinct and vocal subgroup of migrants who demand protection and rights.
When I first sent off a message to the Admin of a Facebook page campaigning for the rights of Afghan interpreters, I did not know that behind the page on my screen was a former translator for the US military in Afghanistan, living in hiding in Norway as a rejected asylum seeker. Asif started working as an interpreter and translator in Camp Eggers, the United States military base in Kabul. He continued working as a project officer for a European Development Agency. As a young student speaking English, he could meet new people, earn some good money, go to places. He did not anticipate the threat letters and the physical assaults he would later face, being considered “a spy, a traitor”. When he claimed asylum in Norway, the police officer told him: “What the fuck are you doing in Norway? You worked with the Americans; why did you not go there?” In 2015, Norway rejected 99 per cent of the asylum applications from Afghan men between 18 and 34 years of age. The EU average was 47 percent. Asif, who has since found temporary protection in another European country, is one of the 28 former civilian staff of Western forces who I interviewed in the UK, the US, France, Germany and Canada where they now live as refugees. Asif’s Facebook page, which is followed by more than 5,000 people, shares news about the failing protection for those still in Afghanistan and the hardships faced by resettled interpreters in different countries across the world. He also sometimes uses the page as a platform to anonymously ask for support for his individual case, such as seeking legal advice.
What is at stake?
Despite historical precedents, such as the US leaving behind, without protection, their local staff employed during the Vietnam War, there was no overarching international protection scheme for locally engaged civilian staff in place as part of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. National schemes are non-comprehensive and haphazard, and despite the international and collaborative nature of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, protection schemes vary wildly across different nation-states. In the UK, for instance, eligibility is tied both to locally engaged civilians’ role and their location of work (it is restricted to interpreters on the frontline in Helmand only), excluding other workers facing threats, unlike in the US and Germany, where role and location do not constitute essential criteria. Some interpreters who were not eligible under the narrow criteria of national protection schemes or who could not afford to await the often years long delayed decisions, left their countries and applied independently for asylum. In the UK, a Defence Select Committee report found that the Government’s “Intimidation scheme” for Afghan local staff “has dismally failed to give any meaningful assurance of protection” from the Taliban, rejecting all applications for international relocation. Those former interpreters who were resettled under the Government’s separate redundancy scheme, struggle with un- and underemployment, lack of access to education, separation from their families, and mental health issues brought about by exposure to traumatic experiences as frontline interpreters. Caseworkers from the different organisations in England, Scotland and Wales who are responsible for resettling Afghan interpreters find that the four months of relocation support offered was woefully inadequate to address people’s needs. As they explained in a knowledge exchange workshop that I organised last May, former military interpreters fall between the cracks as they neither have access to specialised veteran mental health support, nor to refugee mental health services while regular mental health care is not always equipped to detect potential Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Resettlement and Dignified Lives
In September 2019, the Sulha network, a self-organised collective of resettled Afghan former interpreters in the UK, wrote letters to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel, asking for the relaxing of rules to access jobs in the police and military force. Current rules stipulate that former interpreters first have to obtain Indefinite Leave to Remain to work for the police and British citizenship before they can join the Army, practically barring them for years from this employment route. As family unification requires an annual income of at least £18,600, or £22,400 if the partner sponsored is bringing one child, a stable income is vital for those interpreters who were unmarried at the time of relocation to Britain, who now want to bring their spouses and dependent children from Afghanistan. They face a more challenging procedure than interpreters who were married before, who recently obtained automatic right to reunification, though even among this group several interpreters are still separated from their children and wives. As frustrated interpreters who relocated as single men told Home Office representatives during a Westminster meeting, organised in March 2019 by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, the numerous other obstacles such as English language tests for their illiterate spouses and the necessity of dangerous and expensive travel to India or Pakistan for visa applications in the absence of a visa office in Afghanistan make family reunification nigh on impossible.
Mohammed Hares, chairman of the Sulha network, vividly captured the impact of family separation on the wellbeing of resettled interpreters. In an interview, he told me: “I was watching a film from Japan where they took fish from the sea, then froze it, and put it in water, so the fish was moving again. The guys in the UK without their families, they are like being frozen in that fridge.” Interpreters’ demands for extended rights should be understood in line with other migrants’ acts of resistance, which have been described by Maurice Stierl as “deeply political […] mobilisations over questions of inclusion and exclusion, belonging and unbelonging, (access to) rights and resources, survival, and more generally, the ability to lead liveable and dignified human lives” (2019: 2).
How former interpreters make their voices heard
Migrants who don’t enjoy citizenship rights are excluded from the possibility of voting at national elections and therefore have to “engage in alternative forms of political participation” (Però and Solomos 2010: 4). The self-organised Sulha network of Afghan interpreters in the UK has an active counterpart in France, the Association des interprètes et auxiliaires afghans de l’Armée Française. Led by an Afghan interpreter, who previously worked for the French army, and a French lawyer, they use innovative political and legal strategies to campaign on behalf of French army interpreters whose applications for resettlement had been rejected and to highlight the needs of Afghan former local staff currently in France. This year, they achieved a major victory when France’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ordered that “the state owed local [Afghan] staff a duty of ‘functional protection’”, similar to the protection accorded to, for instance, French police officers. This has forced the French state to take responsibility for Afghan former interpreters whose applications for relocation they previously rejected. In the UK, Afghan interpreters have sought justice through the courts by challenging the difference between the resettlement schemes for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. In addition to the legal tools of public litigation and individual asylum appeals, resettled and left-behind interpreters have employed a range of political strategies. They have turned to formal political channels, such as lobbying their MPs and giving evidence to Parliament, but also used other tactics, such as transnational protests at embassies in Europe and Afghanistan. They have also amplified their voices through the media, from the Daily Mail’s Betrayal of the Brave campaign, to appearances on shows such as John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight in the US.
Allies and Solidarity
In a climate that is generally hostile to migrants, “it is crucial for them to find allies with whom to mobilise to promote their rights and conditions” (Però and Solomos 2010: 14). Afghan and Iraqi interpreters have found an impressive range of allies, including from groups not usually associated with migrants’ rights. Veterans constitute an important and powerful supporter group. In the United States, Veterans for American Ideals lobbies for the Special Immigrant Visa programme protecting former locally employed civilians, while the non-profit organisation No One Left Behind combines advocacy with service delivery, such as Operation Welcome Home that provides pick-ups at the airport and helps former interpreters with furnishing new homes. Collectives of professional interpreters constitute another group of important allies for former military interpreters. Red T and AIIC, for instance, engage in high-level lobbying, including petitioning heads of states. They also lobby the UN for the adoption of a Resolution that recognises interpreters in conflict as a group that should receive special protection, similar to humanitarian workers and journalists. Together with these allies, resettled military interpreters have gained entry to elite political networks and platforms, such as parliaments and UN roundtables that are often closed to migrants. Other Locally Engaged Civilians, such as interpreters for international development NGOs in Afghanistan, or the cleaners and security guards of military bases who often lack English language proficiency, are disadvantaged in making their voices heard and are marginalised in the “hierarchy of entitlement”.
No Favours, but Rights
Importantly, these allies engage with former local interpreters as colleagues with essential skills, rather than as Others separated from them by ‘race’ or migrant status. These allies also recognise that the interpreters are owed a duty of care. That they are humans – even brothers in arms – who cannot simply be disposed of, when no longer useful. As Chauvin and Garcés‐Mascareñas have observed, “performance-based deservingness has been particularly emphasized by migrant movements and their supporters.” (2014: 427). Asif told me that he felt like a can of soda, thrown away when finished. This treatment denies the relationships and interdependencies created in and beyond the theatre of war. As one interpreter resettled to Scotland put it: “We ask [the Government] to support those who have supported you, to help us with our problems when we have helped you. If we were not interpreting for you, how would your country carry out a military mission?” Former locally employed civilian staff are not asking for favours, but for rights, and they refuse to stay silent.
Chauvin, S., & Garcés‐Mascareñas, B. (2014). Becoming less illegal: Deservingness frames and undocumented migrant incorporation. Sociology Compass, 8(4), 422-432.
Farrier, D. (2012) Editorial. Special issue ‘Asylum Accounts’, Moving Worlds, 12(2): 1-2.
Però, & Solomos, S. (2010) ‘Introduction: Migrant Politics and Mobilization: Exclusion, Engagements, Incorporation’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(1): 1-18.
Stierl, M. (2018). Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe. Routledge.
Sara de Jong is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics, University of York. She currently researches the claims to protection and rights by former Locally Engaged Civilians and their advocates. She provided written and oral evidence for the Defence Select Committee’s 2018 Report ‘Lost in Translation: Afghan Interpreters and other Locally Employed Civilians’.
Image credit: A British commander talks via an interpreter to an Afghan civilian seen acting suspiciously at Lashkar Gah, Helmand, Afghanistan, 3 May 2006. Image © Crown copyright. IWM (HTF-2006-007-091)