Britain to resettle its Iraqi interpreters
As troops withdraw from Iraq, Britain on Tuesday promised resettlement aid to employees.
It was a simple text message. "Quit your job or be killed." Loay Mohammed Al-Tahar had known he was working in a dangerous job, interpreting for British military special units that were arresting and interrogating militias in Basra. But he didn't realize just how dangerous. Until then.Skip to next paragraph
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"I took it seriously because they'd already killed three guys I knew," he says. They were among the scores of Iraqis murdered since 2003 who had worked for multinational forces in Iraq. "I decided to resign."
He fled to Syria, where he sought help from the British Embassy. No help. He and two other interpreters petitioned Downing Street. There was no immediate response.
But with the help of Army officers, rights groups, and a series of front-page articles in The Times newspaper, the campaign snowballed to such an extent that Britain on Tuesday finally agreed to grant "resettlement allowances" and, in certain cases, asylum.
The critical decision comes as Britain's presence in southern Iraq is being wound down, with around 100 interpreters likely to be left behind by next year. It follows a precedent set by Denmark in August, when it granted asylum to 60 Iraqi staff and their families, and airlifted them out of Iraq before pulling the last of its force from the country.
"I heard the news on TV," says Mr. Tahar, speaking by telephone from Syria. "It's a great decision. I think it's going to help me because I have been in considerable danger, especially after the work I have done with the special forces."
The interpreters have consistently argued that they should be treated separately from other workers who have helped multinational forces.
Tahar describes why. He says that during special detention operations in Basra through 2005 and 2006, he was repeatedly present when some particularly nefarious characters were being detained and interrogated. A black balaclava masked his identity, but on one occasion a suspect told him that if he found out who he was he would kill him.
Rights groups say that the least the occupying powers can do is protect those who have provided invaluable service but are now considered traitorous "collaborators" by murderous elements in Iraq.
Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, said governments were "morally obliged to help get these people to safety." "They have put their lives on the line for the sake of the [United Kingdom's] effort in Iraq, and the UK has up until now refused to acknowledge that it has a responsibility towards them."
Mr. Porteous and others who have closely followed the case say there are still loopholes in the British government's offer. They note that there are two strands to the settlement: a one-off package of financial assistance of up to 12 months' salary to help relocate staff "in Iraq or the region"; or alternatively the chance to apply for asylum. Details on how to apply will be made public later this month.
"There are some practical issues that have not been clearly spelled out," says Porteous, noting that many former interpreters have, like Tahar, fled to neighboring Syria where they have been refused consular access.