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‘Indefensible disgrace’: Former head of Nato backs our campaign to stop Afghan war hero’s deportation to Rwanda

Exclusive: Ex-foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind also expresses deep concerns

Kate Devlin,Holly Bancroft,Adam Forrest
Friday 31 March 2023 20:57 BST
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Rishi Sunak questioned on The Independent’s investigation on Afghan ‘hero’ facing deportation

The former head of Nato has backed The Independent’s campaign against deporting an Afghan war veteran, saying it would be an “indefensible disgrace” if the Home Office carried out its threat to send him to Rwanda.

Lord Robertson, former secretary general of the military alliance, urged the government to show decency and give the pilot the respect and safety he deserves.

The case of the Afghan Air Force serviceman, who served alongside British forces, sparked an outcry after it was revealed by The Independent earlier this week. Other leading figures to call for him to remain in the UK include Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, defence select committee chair Tobias Ellwood and former chief of joint operations Gen Sir Richard Barrons.

The pilot is facing removal because he arrived in Britain on a small boat, unable to secure a safe and legal route. He described how he spent months travelling by car, truck and boat to get to Europe, paying thousands of pounds to smugglers. His only possessions were his flight documents, proving his identity and his military service. He said his wife begged him to flee and leave her behind while he made his perilous journey across five countries.

Lord Robertson, also a former UK defence secretary, said: “It would be an indefensible disgrace if he was sent to Rwanda. We owe a huge debt to people like him and in decency we should give him the respect and safety he deserves.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Tory defence secretary who also served as foreign secretary, has called for a review of the case, saying ministers could use their “discretion”.

He told The Independent: “If there is evidence the person worked hard to support British forces in Afghanistan that should certainly be taken in account. If there are reasons personal to his history – whereby this country owes him a debt – it certainly deserves to be looked at. Ultimately ministers can use discretion.

“Even if there is no legal obligation, you have a twinge of concern – sometimes a substantial twinge of concern – and it’s certainly worth looking into whether the evidence supports what is being said.”

Another former defence minister also backed The Independent’s campaign. Labour peer Baroness Taylor of Bolton said: “It is disgraceful. I am amazed that the government can be so callous. We have an obligation and I think we should fulfil that.”

She added: “Other people will always look to see how we react in situations like this. And I think that in recent years our record has not been great. It is a very simple situation which can be easily solved. And I think it would be to the benefit of everyone – the individual concerned, the British government, our international standing. I just can’t understand why ministers have not taken the appropriate action – letting the guy stay.”

The air force lieutenant has appealed to Rishi Sunak to give him sanctuary in Britain in a letter. Earlier this week Mr Sunak vowed to look at the case after he was pressed on it by the Conservative MP Caroline Nokes in the House of Commons.

Soon afterwards ex-defence minister Kevan Jones described the situation as “a stain on Britain’s great reputation”.

Sir Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador to Afghanistan during the summer of 2021 and the fall of Kabul, also spoke out warning that the lives of Afghans who “worked for us and with us ... are at risk as a result”.

Gen Sir Richard Barrons, a former chief of joint operations who served in Afghanistan, has said the way the pilot came to the UK should not affect his chance of being granted asylum.

“This should not be complicated ... The fact that he went through other countries to get here is not surprising, considering the mess the government made with the evacuation process,” he said.

Tobias Ellwood, the chair of parliament’s defence select committee, said of the deportation threat: “This is not who we are as a nation.”

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