The Home Office is reviewing its controversial policy of returning Afghan military interpreters to their home country after granting asylum to a former interpreter it initially tried to remove from the UK, according to lawyers involved in the case.
The 31-year-old interpreter, who had worked with UK and other coalition forces for seven years on the frontline in the battle against the Taliban, is celebrating after being told by the Home Office on Thursday that he has been granted leave to remain in the UK, despite government officials trying to force him onto a plane back to last April.
Lewis Kett, the interpreter’s representative at Duncan Lewis solicitors, welcomed the news and said Home Office officials informed him at an earlier court hearing that a review of the policy of returning interpreters to Afghanistan is underway.
The Home Office’s current policy is that it is generally safe to send these interpreters back to certain areas of Afghanistan such as Kabul. Last summer a ban was placed on all forced returns to Afghanistan but this was lifted earlier this month and the court of appeal gave the government permission to start returning people again.
Kett said: “At the court hearing in January, a Home Office official explained that the policy team had been considering their position in general on Afghan interpreters and ... that they wanted to review their policy on interpreters in light of the substantial body of new evidence we had provided to them.”
Asked by the Guardian about a policy review, the Home Office refused to comment on this directly. A spokesman said: “All asylum claims made in the UK by an Afghan national on the basis of past work as an interpreter for UK or allied forces are considered on its own merits.”
The Guardian understands that Home Office officials in the interpreter’s case have passed new evidence about dangers for interpreters returned to Afghanistan, to the policy team.
The issue of whether it is safe to send home Afghan military interpreters who have claimed asylum here, is a controversial one. Some MPs, military personnel and sections of the media, have campaigned for interpreters to be allowed to stay here.
Lawyers for the interpreter in this week’s case, who has not been named for legal reasons, say he regularly put his life at risk and he and his family received numerous written and telephone threats from the Taliban.
When allied forces began to withdraw from the country in 2014 he believed his life was at even greater risk and fled to the UK to claim asylum. Since allied forces pulled out of Afghanistan the security situation has deteriorated sharply and (pdf) for civilian deaths.
The interpreter arrived in the UK in December 2014, claimed asylum, was detained and had his claim rejected. The Home Office then attempted to remove him on a chartered plane to Afghanistan in April 2015.
“I was given a ticket for that flight by the Home Office and was absolutely terrified,” he said. A last minute high court challenge by his lawyers prevented him from being put on the plane and a new hearing was scheduled for January this year.
Significant new evidence was presented about the dangers to interpreters being forcibly returned to Afghanistan. An expert put forward evidence that contrary to the Home Office position the Taliban can target interpreters even in Kabul, an area the government considers to be generally safe. Interpreters who worked with allied troops are high profile targets for the Taliban, not only because they have collaborated with “the enemy” but because of military knowledge they picked up in the course of their work.
Military personnel, NGOs and former interpreters now in hiding in Afghanistan also gave evidence in the case. The interpreter said: “I am so happy about this decision. The work I did for the allied forces was very dangerous. I saw so many dead bodies and what I saw has deeply affected me. My life was at risk all the time and the Taliban would target me if the UK had sent me back to Afghanistan. I hope that my case will help other interpreters who are in the same situation I was in.”
Kett said he was shocked by how quickly the Home Office initially tried to return the interpreter to Afghanistan.“ These interpreters put their lives on the line to assist British, American and other western forces in their efforts to stabilise the country and our evidence clearly suggests they are now being tracked down, and tortured or killed. Their role has a particularly symbolic value to the Taliban given that they acted essentially as the face and voice for Western forces and marked them out in the eyes of the Taliban as traitors to their country and as a priority target.”
Afghan interpreter Hekmatullah Wahid, 30, who was initially refused asylum in the UK but is now waiting for a new decision from the Home Office, welcomed the news about the interpreter who has been granted asylum. “If I am sent back to Afghanistan my life will be at risk. I hope that this case will help my case and allow me to live safely in the UK,” he .
• This article was amended on 28 March 2016 to clarify the role of Lewis Kett.