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‘Farcical and appalling’: Military chiefs join call to stop Afghan war hero being deported from UK to Rwanda

Former minister Rory Stewart called the case ‘shameful’ while General Sir Richard Barrons said the evacuation from Afghanistan had been a ‘mess’

Kim Sengupta,Kate Devlin,Holly Bancroft
Wednesday 29 March 2023 19:35 BST
Rishi Sunak questioned on The Independent’s investigation on Afghan ‘hero’ facing deportation

Senior military chiefs, politicians and diplomats have joined a growing band of supporters calling on Rishi Sunak to prevent an Afghan war hero being deported to Rwanda.

The Independent revealed this week that the pilot was forced to flee the Taliban and travel to Britain on a small boat because he could find no safe and legal route.

Mr Sunak has promised to review his plight, and on Monday he asked the Home Office to look into the pilot’s situation.

As anger grew, one former cabinet minister called the case “shameful”, while senior military figures warned the Afghan Air Force veteran would have faced retribution, and even death, if he had not escaped. It came as:

  • Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab was repeatedly challenged over the controversy
  • Former defence minister Kevan Jones described the situation as “a stain on Britain’s great reputation”
  • The UK ambassador to Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul warned many British soldiers “owe their lives to Afghans who fought alongside them”

Former international development secretary Rory Stewart said the pilot’s story was “profoundly shocking” because it went directly against the pledges made to those in Afghanistan.

“We are shirking our responsibilities towards Afghans who risked their lives to fight alongside us and who are now at risk of their lives.”

Britain has a double responsibility, he said, because the “asylum system exists exactly to protect people fleeing from persecution.... This is simply shameful. We can and must do so much better – our civilisation will be judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable.”

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

He added that “many of our own service people owe their lives to Afghans who worked and fought alongside them in Afghanistan”.

General Sir Richard Barrons, a former chief of joint operations who served in Afghanistan, said the pilot’s route to the UK should not affect his asylum chances.

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

Mr Raab struggled to offer answers on Wednesday when he was repeatedly challenged over the Afghan veteran’s threatened deportation to Rwanda.

Pressed four times on the Today programme over whether the pilot would be “chucked out” of the UK, Mr Raab said the government was determined to crack down on “criminal gangs who feed the illegal asylum trade” by bringing people to the UK on small boats.

But Colonel Simon Diggins, who served as a defence attache in Afghanistan and was involved in the Kabul evacuation, said: “We shouldn’t accept the terminology that he got here ‘illegally’; that is not the right language for people like him who have no other means of getting here safely.

“It is appalling that this man who was in our allied forces is being treated in this way.”

Sir William Patey, a former British ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, warned of the extreme danger the war hero would have faced had he stayed.

“He flew combat missions against the Taliban so obviously he would have been under direct threat of reprisal in Afghanistan; he would have been killed,” he said.

“I really don’t see how he cannot get asylum or qualify under the various Afghan schemes. It’s a bit farcical that he is being threatened with Rwanda.”

Major General Tim Cross, who served in Iraq, the Balkans and Northern Ireland, described the case as one of “common sense, or rather the lack of it”.

He went on: “If this man was a member of Afghan forces fighting alongside the coalition then the risks to him are obvious. The whole Afghanistan withdrawal was terribly done, and cases like these are the human consequences of mistakes we made in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The Afghan veteran, who flew 30 combat missions against the Taliban, was praised by his coalition forces supervisor as a “patriot to his nation”.

An email sent from the Home Office said that because he had travelled through Italy, Switzerland and France in order to reach England that could have “consequences for whether your claim is admitted to the UK asylum system... [The pilot] may also be removable to Rwanda”.

The Home Office also told the pilot his personal data could be shared with the Rwandan authorities, sparking claims that he has been "forgotten" by US and British forces.

Former defence minister Kevan Jones said: “We have a huge debt to these people. This is no way to treat them. It's a stain on Britain's great reputation of supporting its friends.”

He added: “We always stick by our friends. We should continue to do that. This government is clearly not doing that in this case and many others.”

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