Lost in Translation? Afghan Interpreters and Other Locally Employed Civilians Contents

3The Intimidation Scheme

The Intimidation Scheme

35.The Intimidation Scheme provides a mechanism for supporting locally employed civilians who believe that their safety is threatened because of their previous assistance to the United Kingdom in Afghanistan. It is open to all current or former LECs who were engaged by any UK Government Department from 2001 onwards. It was first established in 2010, with a revised scheme announced in 2013.

36.Currently, it is administered by the Intimidation Investigation Unit (IIU) in Kabul, with the most complex and challenging cases referred to a team in London. Any former LEC can contact the IIU, which will assess their security needs. According to the MoD, “when an individual contacts the MoD’s Intimidation Investigation Unit and reports an incident, an initial risk assessment is made within 24 hours to decide whether the individual’s life is under immediate threat”.29 This assessment results in a ‘traffic light’ classification:

The MoD also explained that in cases where there is an “imminent and significant” risk (i.e. an amber or red case), “immediate action is taken to remove the individual from this risk whilst the intimidation claim is investigated”. The assessment of “imminent and significant risk” is undertaken on a “case by case basis according to individual circumstances”.31

37.In a Written Ministerial Statement in November 2015, the MoD announced additional changes:

38.As of 27 February 2017, the IIU had received a total of 401 claims, of which 386 had been investigated and 15 were pending:

The remaining 85 cases were withdrawn or closed due to lack of contact.33

39.The MoD has frankly stated that relocation to the UK under the Intimidation Scheme is considered only as a last resort and that this scheme “is not designed for LECs to apply to relocate to the UK”.34 In its written evidence, the MoD provided details of the single case of an LEC who was judged to be under sufficiently serious risk for relocation to the UK. A grant of leave to enter the UK is subject to satisfactory security clearance checks, visa approval for the LEC and family members also considered to be under threat, and DNA checks to ensure that those family members were related as claimed. In the case of this solitary LEC, the individual failed the necessary security screening processes and was denied a visa. He accepted an ‘alternative mitigation measure’ instead. This means that no-one at all has been successfully relocated to the UK as part of the scheme established in 2013.35

40.Only one LEC was successfully relocated to the UK under an earlier version of the Intimidation Scheme, before the institution of the IIU. He was brought to the UK under an offer of education as it was judged that the risk was too great for him to remain in Afghanistan.

The LEC Assurance Committee

41.The LEC Assurance Committee was established in November 2015, to “reflect on the application of the [intimidation] policy in a cross-section of cases and make recommendations on how the policy could be improved.” According to the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the purpose of the committee was not to decide whether the decisions made are right or wrong, “but whether the rules have been interpreted correctly and whether in the main we need to tweak it”.36

42.The committee is chaired by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and its membership includes Baroness Coussins, Lord Stirrup and the Bishop of Colchester. In addition, a former LEC has been appointed to provide the committee to bring a “direct interpreter perspective on what the process is like for former local staff and the challenges they face in Afghanistan”.37 The committee plays no role in monitoring the Redundancy Scheme.

43.Despite being chaired by a Minister, the committee is, according to the-then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, “supposed to be impartial”.38 Each of the independent Members can access case files and, according to the MoD, these members have “taken responsibility for selecting the categories of claims to be considered”.39

44.According to Mr Iremonger, the Assistant Chief of Staff at PJHQ, each time the committee meets “it reviews the security situation in Afghanistan” and “gets a report from the Foreign Office representative […] about what the developments have been since the last time the committee met”. The committee keeps the general situation under review and “looks at whether there are any questions about the policy that need to be raised to the Minister or to the Cabinet Office […] about whether the scheme is still fit for purpose”.40 At the time of our evidence session on 28 November 2017, the committee had met five times. According to Baroness Coussins, at each meeting, the committee “has looked at three, four or five cases”.41

The independent barrister’s audit of the intimidation policy

45.In 2015, an independent barrister was commissioned by the Government to conduct an audit of past cases considered under the intimidation policy. According to the MoD, the barrister carried out three reviews: one in summer 2015 and two in winter 2015–16, and provided “an assessment on the legality of the decisions taken in the cases selected” and identified whether there were aspects of those cases that “should be reviewed”.

46.The first review looked at 166 cases, of which “less (sic) than 5% of the decisions were identified as potentially unlawful”. These cases were, in turn, then assessed by the IIU which “concluded that whilst there had been administrative errors, notably in recording the basis for decisions taken, these had not invalidated the decisions and the cases were not reopened”.

47.In the second and third reviews, the barrister looked at a further 34 cases, of which “only two case decisions were identified as potentially unlawful”. As with the first review, these cases were reviewed by the IIU and “it was concluded that the right decisions had been taken”. In addition, the MoD has told us that following the independent audit, policy has been “reviewed and clarified where there were problems of detailed interpretation (e.g. on whether the intimidation was a family dispute in which the Taliban was used as a threat, or employment-related)”.42

Criticisms of the intimidation scheme

A failure to provide adequate protection?

48.One of the main criticisms of the intimidation scheme is that it does not provide a level of protection that is adequate to the security threat facing former LECs in Afghanistan—particularly as the scheme prioritises relocation within Afghanistan rather than to the UK.

49.As the Home Office’s 2017 country policy and information note on security in Afghanistan highlights, Afghanistan is a dangerous and volatile place. The Home Office’s note cites, for example, the 2017 Global Peace Index which ranked the country “as the second least peaceful country in the world after Syria”, and the UN Secretary General’s June 2017 assessment that the security situation in the country remains “very volatile, with an increase in security incidents in the first five months of the year over the same period in 2016.”43

50.Unsurprisingly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recommends against all travel to a vast swathe of Afghanistan, including 24 provinces and more than a dozen districts across the country, including parts of Kabul. For the rest of the country, the FCO advises against all but essential travel.44

Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice: Afghanistan


Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

51.Terrorist attacks are a common menace and, while these often appear to be indiscriminate, the Taliban and other anti-government elements are particularly focused on Government and non-governmental organisation (NGO) targets as well as those from or associated with ‘the West’.45 According to a 2016 Home Office country profile and information note on the risk from anti-government elements in Afghanistan:

Civilians associated with, or perceived to be supporting the Government, civil society and the international community in Afghanistan, including the international military forces and international humanitarian and development actors, have been subject to intimidation, threats, abductions and targeted attacks by AGEs (anti-government elements), such as the Taliban.46

52.Rafi Hottak, a former LEC now resident in the UK, suggested that “it is a fact that the security situation is much, much worse” since the UK pulled out from Afghanistan.47 Mr Hottak, like the Daily Mail, pointed to the resurgence of the Taliban, “in Helmand where the majority of interpreters worked” and the growth of ISIS who will, he contends, “also kill us because of our help to the British”. In his opinion, “Afghanistan is more dangerous than ever”, resulting in interpreters living “in fear of revenge attacks, of kidnappings and torture”.48 Tom Tugendhat MP told our inquiry that he was personally “aware of one or two [LECs] who are still at risk and whose perception of risk I would trust”.49

53.Mr Hottak also queried the scheme’s focus on relocation within Afghanistan, arguing that such relocation “shows a lack of understanding of Afghanistan”, with people moving from the South to the North standing out and becoming the subject of suspicion. Such a person, Mr Hottak suggested, would be “’marked’ as an outsider, often from another tribe” and he said that there had been “numerous examples of interpreters having to move and then being again singled out”.50 The Daily Mail also repeated claims that interpreters had been moved on numerous occasions, citing the case of an unnamed senior LEC who had, allegedly, moved five times, and each time been identified as a ‘friend of the infidels’.51

54.The MoD has argued that relocation within Afghanistan is—save in exceptional circumstances—sufficient to safeguard former LECs’ security. In a written ministerial statement, on 20 December 2016, the-then Minister, Mike Penning MP, noted that the level “of intimidation faced in these cases [reviewed so far] has not so far been such that we have had to relocate an individual to the UK to ensure their safety”, and the MoD has repeatedly highlighted the fact that only one case so far was deemed to be of such severity as to warrant relocation.52

55.The MoD has denied that former LECs have been relocated within Afghanistan more than once, saying that “of the cases where we have awarded financial support to an LEC to relocate within Afghanistan (of which there are 35) there are no cases where LEC have been relocated a second time”. The MoD acknowledged that there have been cases where LECs have claimed additional intimidation after relocation, but argued that “resolving this has not required further relocation”.53

The investigatory process

56.The investigatory process itself has also been criticised. In his written evidence, the former interpreter Raffi Hottak accused the IIU of not returning to LECs “threat letters and other details” needed to support their applications. He claimed that former LECs believe the process to be “unfair, unreasonable and shameful”.54

57.The Daily Mail, in its written evidence to the inquiry, based on its interviews with former LECs, similarly claimed that “it is a matter of considerable annoyance to the translators that documentation such as death threat letters that they provide as ‘evidence’ to the unit is not returned to them, even when they are told their cases are rejected and ask for them”.55 In addition, the Daily Mail’s evidence suggested that when cases were rejected, no explanations were provided. There was also a general sense that the IIU is hard to contact: “calls are not returned and translators have to travel to Kabul for interviews”, thus incurring additional risks.56

58.The Daily Mail queried how far the IIU goes “in verifying—and proving beyond reasonable doubt—claims of threats made to translators”. For example, it suggested that, “understandably” in the current security context, “there appears [to be] little evidence of UK investigators or their representatives going out to rural areas, towns and cities to investigate a claim or death threat”.57

59.Responding to these points, the MoD explained that the IIU conducts its investigations from the NATO base at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. According to the MoD, the security situation in Afghanistan means that “investigating officers are unable to move outside of secure NATO bases to conduct investigations”. Investigations are, therefore, conducted remotely. The MoD further explained that all claimants are provided with an initial assessment within 24 hours of raising their concerns and that these assessments are either conducted in person or by telephone. The latter, according to the MoD, is sufficient in most cases and obviates the risks to LECs from travelling from locations that may be some distance from Kabul.58

60.The MoD highlighted the IIU’s “good links” with Afghan organisations, such as the National Directorate of Security and noted that the unit can draw on these bodies for reports on incidents or for expertise in certain areas, such as the validity of threat letters. The IIU, according to the MoD, will also contact other relevant organisations during the investigatory process, citing a hypothetical case where an LEC had claimed that medical treatment was required because of physical intimidation. In such a case, the IIU would “contact the hospital to validate the claim using the medical reports or commission our own medical examinations”. The MoD also noted that if claimants and witnesses need to travel to Kabul to be interviewed, the IIU would cover the costs of travel.59

61.On whether the IIU provided reasons for rejected intimidation claims, the MoD explained that “once the Theatre Intimidation Assessment and Review panel or higher-level panel in the UK has reached a decision on the intimidation claim, the LES [locally employed staff] is orally back-briefed, usually over the phone”. The MoD further noted that written decisions have been provided to LECs on demand, but that this practice was discouraged as it provided a link between the LEC in question and the UK which “can increase their risk”.60

62.The Intimidation Scheme’s investigatory process has been criticised and there appears to be a perception that investigators are hard to contact, aloof and unfamiliar with the actual situation on the ground outside Kabul. While we do not question the sincerity of those who have criticised the investigatory process, we have found little evidence to support the claim that the process is “unfair, unreasonable and shameful”. It is, however, over-dependent on indirect evidence from third parties, such as Afghan Government agencies, since the local security situation makes it too dangerous for Westerners to carry out their inquiries in person.

63.The MoD admits that its investigators conduct their work remotely, from the NATO base at Hamid Karzai International Airport. This is a far from ideal situation and, despite the MoD’s assurance that all claimants are provided with initial assessments within 24 hours of their concerns being raised, the fact that investigators are unable to leave their base camp only serves to highlight the serious threats that international actors face in Afghanistan.

64.There is clearly a deep suspicion of the Afghan authorities among the LEC community. The Intimidation Scheme, in its current form, has dismally failed to give any meaningful assurance of protection. The scheme suffers from perceptions that it is unfair and miserly and provides insufficient protection for LECs living in what the UK Government has itself conceded is a ‘dangerous and volatile place’. Such perceptions will persist until the Intimidation Scheme offers a genuine prospect that, when individuals face serious and verifiable threats to their lives, as a result of having helped UK armed forces, they will be allowed to come to the UK.

The role of the Afghan Government

65.The importance of the Afghan Government in shaping the boundaries of the Intimidation Scheme (as well as those of the Redundancy Scheme) was mentioned by many witnesses, including the MoD. According to Baroness Coussins, the schemes arose because of inter-governmental discussions between the UK and the Afghan Governments that were:

… based on an understanding or an agreement that we should not operate what would effectively be a brain drain and attract what would be regarded as too many educated professionals out of the country at just the time when it needed people like that to rebuild itself.61

As a result, Baroness Coussins suggested, “it is only in ‘extreme cases’ that the intimidation policy would agree relocation [to the UK] as an outcome to a claim of intimidation”.62

66.The MoD has, unsurprisingly, drawn repeated attention to this inter-governmental understanding in defence of the Intimidation Scheme’s emphasis on relocation to the UK being a last resort. In his letter to the Chairman of the Committee on 12 March 2018, for example, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP, drew attention to the MoD’s “responsibility to respect the Afghan Government’s stated wish that should avoid fuelling a ‘brain drain’ of some of Afghanistan’s brightest and best”.63 Similarly, in May 2016, the then Minister of State, Penny Mordaunt MP, ruled out a universal relocation scheme for LECs and their families on the grounds that such a scheme “could well result in tens of thousands of people moving from Afghanistan to the UK—against the wishes of the Government of Afghanistan”.64

67.It has therefore been suggested that any loosening of the Intimidation Scheme would require the approval of the Afghan Government. Baroness Coussins, for example, expressed her personal view that “there might be more room for manoeuvre in the definition of extreme cases” and that “there is a case for loosening up the policy a bit”, while her fellow LEC Assurance Committee member Lord Stirrup was also personally inclined towards a more “sympathetic approach”.65 Both, however, pointed to the UK Government’s policy arrangement with the Afghan Government, with Baroness Coussins suggesting that any prospect of reform is “ultimately down to the politics of that arrangement [ … ] and that perhaps needs to be reconsidered”.66


68.Afghanistan was, and remains, a highly dangerous place, and we note that, aside from the FCO’s travel advice, the Home Office has also drawn attention to the potential threats that face civilians working for Governmental, civil society and international organisations. In this context, a scheme to protect former LECs is of the utmost importance.

69.The first priority of any Intimidation Scheme should be to ensure the safety of individuals, particularly those who have put their own lives on the line when serving for, and alongside, UK forces. However, as it currently exists, the Afghan Intimidation Scheme appears to go to considerable lengths to preclude the relocation to the UK of interpreters and other locally employed civilians who have reported threats and intimidation. Instead, the scheme has prioritised internal relocation and personal security measures, with admission to the UK treated as an absolutely last resort. The result is that not one person has been relocated to the UK under the current Intimidation Scheme.

70.It is impossible to reconcile the generous provisions of the Redundancy Scheme, which have allowed the relocation of 1150 Afghan interpreters, other LECs and dependents to enter the UK, with an Intimidation Scheme that has not admitted anyone at all. While we do not criticise the generosity of the Redundancy Scheme—which may well have saved many LECs from vengeance by the Taliban—we strongly suspect that the Afghan Government is reluctant to acknowledge that the country is too dangerous to guarantee the safety of local people who helped the NATO mission to combat the Taliban.

71.Given our Government’s own stark assessment of the perilous Afghan security situation, the idea that no interpreters or other former LECs have faced threats and intimidation warranting their relocation to the UK is totally implausible.

72.Much has been made of the need to avoid a supposed ‘brain drain’ as a major obstacle to a more generous Intimidation Scheme. This is completely disingenuous. If the ‘brightest and the best’ have to go into hiding, their brains will hardly be available for the advancement of Afghan national development. Moreover, the ‘brain drain’ avoidance argument, if genuine, should also have precluded hundreds of Afghan LECs being relocated to the UK under the Redundancy Scheme; yet that was allowed to proceed without objection.

73.The fate of interpreters and other locally employed civilians, who bravely served UK forces, and who now fear for their lives, should not be dependent on the wishes of the Afghan Government to deny the reality of the threats which they face. We have a duty of care to those who risked everything to help our armed forces in Afghanistan.

74.We, therefore, strongly agree with Baroness Coussins and Lord Stirrup that there is room for a looser and more sympathetic approach to the application of the Intimidation Scheme, though we accept that the current security situation in Afghanistan makes it difficult to verify the authenticity of threats. We accept that many people at risk of intimidation may have been relocated already under the Redundancy Scheme; but its cut-off date, whilst reasonable from the perspective of redundancy, risks excluding those employed too early to qualify, who are yet at risk of Taliban vengeance. Such people can be saved only by the proper application of the—hitherto useless—Intimidation Scheme.

75.The Government should therefore invite the LEC Assurance Committee to consider how to apply the existing terms and conditions of the Intimidation Scheme in a looser and more sympathetic way. In doing so, the Assurance Committee and the MoD should look at the policies adopted by other ISAF countries, such as the capped visa programme used by the USA. As part of this work, the Government should move away from its ‘relocation in extremis’ policy and adopt a more needs-based approach to the Intimidation Scheme. Otherwise, the scheme will continue to lack all credibility.

29 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP, dated 12 March 2018

30 Letter from Rt Hon Mike Penning MP to the Chairman, dated 27 February; Letter from Penny Mordaunt to MPs, dated 12 May 2016

31 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

32 HCWS318, 19 November 2015

33 Letter from Rt Hon Mike Penning MP to the Chairman, dated 27 February 2017; LEI0005

34 LEI0004

35 LEI0004

36 Q72 [HC993]

37 HCWS318, 19 November 2015

38 Q72 [HC993]

39 Q72 [HC993]; Q41 [HC572] Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

40 Q75 [HC993]

41 Q41 [HC572]

42 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

44 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign travel advice: Afghanistan

45 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign travel advice: Afghanistan

47 LEI0001

48 LEI0001

49 Q6 [HC 572]

50 LEI0001

51 LEI0003

52 HCWS388; Letter from Rt Hon Mike Penning MP to the Chairman, dated 27 February 2017; Letter from Penny Mordaunt MP, dated 12 May 2016

53 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

54 LEI0001

55 LEI0003

56 LEI0003

57 LEI0003

58 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

59 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

60 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP to the Chairman, dated 12 March 2018

61 Q45 [HC 572]

62 Q45 [HC 572]

63 Letter from Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP, dated 12 March 2018

64 Letter from Penny Mordaunt MP, dated 12 May 2016

65 Qq57, 60 and 64 [HC 572]

66 Q64 [HC 572]

Published: 26 May 2018