At the end of 25 years of military service, a Roman auxiliary would receive his ultimate reward: citizenship. It was a canny piece of state-building from the Romans, inculcating the strongest and bravest of conquered peoples into the empire. More than that though, it spoke of a sacred promise – that those who risked their life in defence of the empire would receive its protection with the perpetual security that accompanied the boast “civis Romanus sum”.
In modern-day Afghanistan, there seems little scope for such reciprocity. Thousands of Afghans who assisted Nato forces during the 20 years of US-led operations in the country face abandonment as troops withdraw. Recrimination from militants is likely to be swift and brutal. As towns fall to the advancing Taliban, those who supported the Allied forces are hunted down and killed.
The British government has pledged to rescue and resettle those it considers in danger, yet this response is proving inadequate. Though the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy has brought nearly 1,500 Afghans to the UK, many more remain stranded in Afghanistan, struggling with British bureaucracy as their own country succumbs to the Taliban.
Several technicalities have left those who fall outside of the scheme unfairly exposed to danger. For one, the offer of resettlement has only been made to those who were in the direct employ of the British government. This has excluded some who were employed through contractors and those who were hired directly by special forces units on the ground. Furthermore, the risk assessments used by the government deem those who provided “second-order” help to British forces – cooks, cleaners, gardeners, and the like – less at risk, limiting help to those directly involved in military operations.
The scheme also routinely excludes those who were dismissed by the British – around 1,345 people since 2006. While some of those committed serious (including criminal) breaches, others were part of routine employment disputes, and had no proper due process or right to appeal at the time (those who were dismissed for minor administrative offences will no longer be dismissed). Some have been vouched for by senior UK officials and still found their applications rejected.
These technicalities mean up to 4,000 of the 7,000 Afghans employed by the British may be ineligible for relocation and will have to trust that Taliban death squads draw their distinctions as tightly as Whitehall officials.
Even for those who fall within the scope of the scheme, passage to the UK is not straightforward. The application process for resettlement is complicated and slow-moving. Some interpreters and other workers have had initial applications refused, only for that decision to be overturned on appeal. Others have been informed that whilst they are welcome here, their families are not, meaning they must leave them behind if they accept relocation.
All of this is an unforced error for the UK government. The politics of immigration may be factious, but almost no one begrudges a safe home for those who aided our troops. The numbers are small, and they have both already contributed to our country and face an imminent deadly threat. Their cases are as sympathetic as any can be.
The position of the Home Office is exposing the department’s worst qualities – an obsession with absolute immigration numbers and the use of process to frustrate rather than facilitate. The whole issue has, it seems to me, been approached as an imposition, rather than an opportunity to reward those Afghans who embraced allied nation-building in their country. The rules have been designed and applied to minimise our largesse, rather than rescue as many people as possible from the militants’ retribution.
This approach angers Conservatives perhaps more than anyone. Both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph have mounted campaigns to see swifter and more liberal action, supported by senior army leaders and back-bench Tory MPs. As a Conservative, I believe it is a matter of our nation’s duty and honour to assist those who risked everything to support our mission. We are no longer in a position, diplomatically, militarily or politically to remove the threat of the Taliban, but we can remove those who helped us from the threat.
Any mistakes in this policy will be counted in blood – the blood of those who provided succour to British troops. Our assistance to them should move swiftly and with the minimum of technicalities. We should be looking for people to include, not to exclude, and not nit-picking over the numbers unless individuals present a real threat to our public.
Those who worked with the British troops risked their lives so that they could live safely, free from the barbarism of the Taliban. We failed to deliver that in Afghanistan – it is cruelty to deny them the right to have it elsewhere. They offered us protection and assistance; we must return the favour.
John Oxley is a former Conservative council candidate.