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We are here, because you were there: Afghan interpreters in the UK

Posted on 21 July 2022

MigNet co-chair and IGDC Co-Director Dr Sara de Jong shares with us powerful words, facts and images that provide an insight into the unfortunate reality faced by Afghan interpreters and other local staff.

Through this project Dr Sara de Jong, IGDC Co-Director and co-founder of the charity Sulha Alliance, shares with us powerful words, facts and images that provide an insight into the unfortunate reality faced by Afghan interpreters and other local staff.

De Jong and photographer Andy Barnham met with 14 former interpreters who are now resettled in the UK to document their experiences through in-depth interviews and to take their portraits. 

The portraits and accompanying quotes were displayed at the Afghan pop-up restaurant organised by Afghan students from the University of York and Afghan refugees in the city, with the support of Yahala Mataam as part of Refugee Week.

Barnham and de Jong, as well several former interpreters also came together for a roundtable event ‘We Are Here, Because You Were There’ at the Southbank Centre, (London) Refugee Week activities. Read more about this on The SouthBank Centre Blog

Photo of the Pop-up Restaurant by Rob Ainsworth

As de Jong outlines in the blog and the art catalogue that presents the portraits and accompanying stories, the challenges faced are not purely in getting safely out of Afghanistan but also in the resettlement process; “When Afghan interpreters arrive in the UK they find themselves in a situation where they are often primarily seen as refugees, as migrants, whereas the way they understand themselves is closer to veterans. They identify themselves in relation to their employment and their relation to the UK is framed through their previous work. ‘I worked for the UK and that is why I'm here’. So pushing them into unemployment or underemployment takes a lot away from who they are and how they understand themselves. Many of the people that we interviewed indicated that they thought they could more quickly stand on their own feet if they had been allowed to move to accommodation where they already had existing networks, an Afghan or even a British military community.”

The event included this powerful visual display showing the many stories de Jong and Barnham encountered through their work.

No other option

These stories provide individual faces to the large scale picture outlined in de Jong and Dr Dimos Sarantidis’s recently published working paper entitled; Divided in Leaving Together: The resettlement of Afghan locally employed staff, which compares the resettlement policies of 8 different countries in light of the fact that “despite the multinational nature of the mission, an overarching international resettlement scheme for Afghan local staff was never developed. Instead, the responsibility for protection and resettlement of local staff was left to each individual nation-state.” 

© Andy Barnham and Sara de Jong 'We are here, because you were there'

The report looks at the national resettlement policies for Afghan staff who are under threat due to their employment with Western armies organisations and Governments and provides a comparative analysis of resettlement policies and support in Resettlement Schemes prior to the Taliban take-over in August 2021, the Evacuation Phase, and ongoing Resettlement Policies and Support post-August 2021. The report makes a number of recommendations based on the collective failures but also best practices demonstrated by countries and the potential for positive change. It’s hoped this will provide an opportunity to inspire other Governments to improve their policies and practices to benefit their former Afghan local staff, in partnership with civil society. The report already received media attention in the Netherlands and was shared by advocates in the respective countries.

With many former staff still left behind in Afghanistan and with future conflicts on the horizon, the need to learn from past failures and aspire to future change cannot be understated.