About 600 Afghan interpreters who served with British forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan will be offered the chance to live in Britain after a government U-turn, it was revealed on Wednesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron had initially sought to discourage the interpreters from settling in Britain for fear of the message it would send out about the stability of Afghanistan.
Many of the Afghans say they have been threatened by the Taliban because of their work with British forces, who are due to withdraw at the end of 2014 along with other NATO-led foreign troops.
Under the new plans, interpreters who served on the frontline for at least one year will be allowed to move to Britain with close family members on a five-year visa.
Those who wish to remain in Afghanistan will receive an improved financial offer — they will be paid their salary for five years if they train or study, or be paid for 18 months if they do not.
“These proposals give them a choice: the opportunity to go on working in Afghanistan, learning new skills and to go on rebuilding their country or to come and make a new start in Britain,” a source in Cameron’s Downing Street office said.
The decision came after three interpreters launched a legal challenge to press for the same treatment afforded to their counterparts who worked with British forces during the Iraq war.
One of the interpreters, an Afghan who wished to be known only as Mohammad, said the government had made “the right decision”.
“Saving those people who have helped the British government is giving a message to the Taliban that the Afghan interpreters will not be left behind for them to be persecuted and hunted down by the terrorists,” he told AFP.
Mohammad was forced to leave his wife and three children behind in Afghanistan after receiving death threats from the Taliban for his five years’ work with British troops.
“I hope that with this decision now, I would be able to reunite with my family here in the UK and the other interpreters would be able to come here in the UK to live in peace with their family,” he said.
His lawyer Rosa Curling, who lodged the interpreters’ legal challenge at the High Court in London earlier this month, said she was “delighted” at the government’s offer, although she admitted she had not seen the details yet.
“These are men who have been on the front line with our troops, risking their lives, involved in frontline battle,” she told BBC radio.
“So we’re delighted that the government has finally seen sense and decided to provide them with the assistance that they provided to the Iraqi interpreters.”
She added that, for her clients, “the death threats continue, so resettling in Afghanistan does seem to be very difficult — the Taliban are very effective at following them”.
The Downing Street source said Cameron “has been very clear that we should not turn our backs on those who have trod the same path as our soldiers in Helmand, consistently putting their lives at risk to help our troops achieve their mission”.
“We should recognise the service given by those who have regularly put themselves in real danger while working for us,” the source said.
Cameron had earlier said that Afghan interpreters should only be allowed to stay in Britain “in extremis”.
“I do think that when we think of all that we have spent and all the cost in money and human lives we have put into Afghanistan, we should do everything we can to encourage talented Afghans to stay in their country and contribute to it,” he added.