Afghan interpreters given right to apply for asylum

In a coordinated u-turn, Denmark and the UK announce that Afghan interpreters may be offered protection

Interpreters who helped Danish forces in Afghanistan will now be allowed to apply for asylum, the defence minister Nick Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne) announced this afternoon.

Hækkerup has been under increasing pressure to help the 195 Afghan interpreters who helped Danish forces. According to a 2011 report from the UN mission to Afghanistan, UNAMA, interpreters are increasingly at risk from reprisal attacks from the Taleban.

Hækkerup said the interpreters would be allowed to apply for asylum and that Danish case workers would travel to Afghanistan to assess applications according to standard asylum criteria.

“Those who are considered to be particularly threatened will be granted asylum, while those facing less risk will be given alternative solutions within Afghanistan,” Hækkerup announced at a press conference today. “Under no circumstances are we going to let down our interpreters.”

The UK also announced a plan to help at-risk interpreters today and around 600 Afghan interpreters who had worked for at least a year for British forces will be granted the right to live in the UK for five years.

The announcements today mark a turnaround by Denmark, which had previously not wanted to offer the same help to Afghan interpreters that was given to Iraqi interpreters who were offered the possibility of asylum after the 2001 invasion.

Hækkerup had claimed that the Afghan interpreters were at less risk than the Iraqi interpreters because they did not work in the local communities they were drawn from, whereas the Iraqis did. But an investigation later showed that at least eight of the 195 interpreters used by Denmark were, in fact, from Helmand Province, where the Danes operated, which made them easier for the Taleban to identify for reprisal attacks.

And an interpreter who spoke to The Copenhagen Post claimed that the Taleban took advantage of government corruption to discover the identities of people who had collaborated with international forces, putting interpreters at risk regardless of where in the country they lived.

Hækkerup has also argued that Denmark did not have the legal responsibility to help the interpreters because they were hired through a British firm.

After today’s turnaround, a Defence Ministry spokesperson said it was not yet known how many of the interpreters who were hired by the British firm and used by Danish forces would be eligible for resettlement in the UK.

Amnesty International, an ardent critic of the Danish government’s hesitation to help Afghan interpreters, was pleased with the government’s announcement.

“We’re happy that the Danish government has decided to take responsibility for the interpreters who might face threats after working with the Danes,” Amnesty Denmark's legal consultant, Claus Juul, told The Copenhagen Post, adding that his organisation would like to see some changes in the policy.

“The interpreters will meet a team of Danish immigration lawyers who will screen the cases. But if the lawyers apply the criteria too strictly and [the interpreters] are denied, there is no chance of appeal,” Juul said. “We are concerned it may be a discount asylum system.”

To tackle this, Amnesty recommends that an equal number of lawyers from the NGO Danish Refugee Council are also sent to hear the cases. Only if both sets of lawyers find an application to be manifestly unfounded should there be no chance of asylum.

“We think the interpreters should have the right to have their case heard by two sets of lawyers, as is the case for the asylum process in Denmark” Juul said.