Up to 600 Afghan interpreters who worked alongside British troops are to be given the right to live in the UK, government sources have confirmed.
The plan marks a climbdown from ministers who had decided they should not get the same UK resettlement rights as interpreters in the Iraq conflict.
Afghan interpreters who worked on the front line for a year or more will initially be offered a five-year visa.
The move covers about half of Afghan interpreters who helped the UK.
A Downing Street source said the proposals would give interpreters a choice – “the opportunity to go on working in Afghanistan, learning new skills and to go on rebuilding their country or to come and make a new start in Britain”.
BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said the coalition previously appeared to be split on the issue.
Liberal Democrats, including former Royal Marine Lord Ashdown, had called for a resettlement package.
We should recognise the service given by those who have regularly put themselves in real danger while working for us”
Downing Street source
Others feared a blanket right to come to the UK could be taken as a sign of a lack of faith in Afghanistan’s future after Western forces left, our correspondent added.
Three Afghan interpreters had already issued a High Court claim for a judicial review of the UK government’s previous decision.
The Downing Street source said Prime Minister David Cameron had been “very clear that we should not turn our backs on those who have trod the same path as our soldiers in Helmand, consistently putting their lives at risk to help our troops achieve their mission”.
“We should recognise the service given by those who have regularly put themselves in real danger while working for us,” the source added.
Many of the interpreters who will be helped say they have received serious threats to their lives, while some have already fled to the UK to claim asylum.
Under the plans, which have yet to be signed off by ministers, those allowed into the UK on a five-year visa will then be able to apply for indefinite leave.
The Border Agency will approve how many close family members they are allowed to bring.
These are men who have been on the front line with our troops, risking their lives, involved in frontline battle, so we’re delighted that the government has finally seen sense”
Interpreters who choose to stay in Afghanistan will be allowed to sign up for for fully-funded training and education for five years, or instead be paid at their current rate for a further 18 months.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK should “do everything we can to encourage talented Afghans to stay in their country and contribute to it”.
That should include a “really generous” package of support for interpreters, he told Radio 4’s World at One.
Under the new plan, some other locals who had helped British soldiers in non-front-line roles, such as cooks and security guards, will also be given the choice of training and education, or further payments.
Lawyer Rosa Curling, who is representing three interpreters who launched a legal challenge against the UK government, praised the decision “to recognise their bravery and to make sure that their lives are now kept safe”.
“These are men who have been on the front line with our troops, risking their lives, involved in frontline battle, so we’re delighted that the government has finally seen sense and decided to provide them with the assistance that they provided to the Iraqi interpreters,” she told BBC Radio 5 live.
She said that, for her clients, “the death threats continue, so resettling in Afghanistan does seem to be very difficult – the Taliban are very effective at following them”.
Dave Garratt, chief executive of Refugee Action welcomed the decision, saying: “This move now puts the UK in step with other Nato countries who have granted their interpreters the right to asylum.”
He called for a “fully funded support programme to aid the relocation, resettlement and successful integration” of Afghan interpreters and their immediate family members in the UK.
Several other countries who have fought in Afghanistan, including the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, have put schemes in place to offer asylum to at least some of the interpreters they employed.
After the Iraq war, Britain gave Iraqi interpreters either one-off financial assistance or exceptional indefinite leave to remain in the UK with help to relocate, or the opportunity to resettle through the UK’s Gateway programme run in partnership with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
In an answer to a Parliamentary question earlier this year about asylum for interpreters, the government referred to “the previous government’s mass resettlement of over 900 locally employed staff in Iraq”.
BBC © 2013