It is time to make good on our ‘debt of obligation’ to Afghan war heroes

In August 2021, as US and British forces were making their hurried retreat from Kabul, the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons that the UK owed a “debt of obligation” to those Afghans who had assisted allied forces, and that for those “who have risked their lives supporting our military efforts and seeking to secure new freedoms for their country, we are proud to bring these brave Afghans to our shores and we continue to appeal for more to come forward”.

In the period since then, according to the official figures, some 24,000 Afghans have arrived in Britain under Operation Pitting, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, or the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. This is obviously very welcome, even if the conditions many families have to live under are far from satisfactory, and they often have to wait too long to have their cases settled and be granted leave to remain.

However, as The Independent’s campaign on behalf of one Afghan air force pilot highlights, not all of those who should be being helped are getting the attention their service should entitle them to. In the case of this pilot, he was unable, through no fault of his own, to make use of the approved routes, and he was forced to come to the UK to seek asylum in person, on a small boat. Therefore, under the present rules, he is liable to be deported to Rwanda. A cruel act in any circumstances, it is even more callous in his case. The fighter pilot, who must remain anonymous for obvious reasons, is a war hero and could easily have lost his life fighting the Taliban and defending British forces.

Having risked his neck in the service of his country and its allies, he found himself risking death by drowning or hypothermia in the cold waters of the English Channel. He has a perfectly valid legal claim and even more powerful moral one. He does not fall into any of the despised categories of rightist myth. He is an allied airman, and his service and sacrifice need to be respected – not least because British ministers have promised as much to parliament.

The pilot himself, now at an undisclosed location in the UK, has pleaded with the government for clemency, although he should not have to: “When your forces left Afghanistan, the Taliban forced me into hiding. I managed to escape and, unable to find a safe route to Britain, took a dangerous journey across five countries before being forced to pay for a place on a small boat to cross the Channel to Britain.

“I asked for help in return for the help I once gave your people. Instead, you have threatened to forcibly deport me to Rwanda.”

In fact it is now one week since the prime minister himself undertook to “look into” this case. Pressed on the matter by Caroline Nokes during his session at the Commons liaison committee, Rishi Sunak stated that he could not comment on individual cases – but “I’ll happily make sure the Home Office have a look”. Mr Sunak conceded that “these are exactly the sort of people we want to help”.

As things stand, and despite the prime ministerial intervention and promise to MPs, the pilot has heard nothing, directly or otherwise, from any government department or agency. While No 10 says it is a matter for the Home Office, the Home Office has refused to say whether it would consider removing the deportation threat while it considers his asylum claim. The Ministry of Defence, headed by Ben Wallace who is an obviously sincere and committed supporter of the Afghan rescue policy, defers to the Home Office, although the ministry decides on eligibility for the officially-sanctioned Afghan veteran resettlement route.

Now Lord Dubs, himself a child refugee from the Nazis, is rightly demanding that Mr Sunak and Suella Braverman cut through the Gordian knot, and do the right thing, as pledged by Mr Johnson and successive prime ministers and members of the cabinet. Lord Dubs is a man possessed of an unassailable moral authority in such matters, and he surely speaks for many when he adds his voice to the pleas, including in The Independent’s petition, for humanity and the prerogative of mercy to be exercised.

Ours is a cross-party campaign, with support from General Sir Richard Barrons, a former chief of joint operations who served in Afghanistan, and former secretaries of state and ministers such as Tobias Ellwood, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Robertson and Kevan Jones. There really should be no impediment to granting a war hero asylum in the UK, particularly when the facts of his case are not in doubt. Britain has said it will not turn its back on these people. It is time to keep our word.


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