Image Credit: MCpl Rory Wilson
Dr Sara de Jong is best known to students at the University of York as a senior lecturer in politics, although during her free time she helps Afghan interpreters with their applications for resettlement in the UK. From 2016 onwards, the main focus of de Jong’s research has been Afghan claims to protection and rights, and she has become an extremely important figure of expertise since the fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021.
Before founding The Sulha Alliance alongside Ed Aitken, Simon Diggins and Peter Gordon-Finayson, Sara carefully developed a diverse set of relationships with international organisations such as No One Left Behind, former servicemen and academics. In 2019, Sara and her fellow founders realised that the space existed for an organisation which could more effectively apply pressure on governments and help vulnerable interpreters and locally employed civilians escape danger.
Since The Sulha Alliance’s founding, Sara told Nouse that “having an organisation was key in making the voices of these people heard.” The pace at which provinces and then finally Kabul fell to the Taliban shocked the world’s media and politicians, although Sara suggests that the rapid escalation of events is no excuse for the UK Government’s failure to evacuate all of the British interpreters and Afghan nationals who assisted NATO forces. Sara said that it simply is not a case of asking “could this have been foreseen or not”, as former staff in Afghanistan “did not only just become exposed but have long-been exposed”. The idea that it was never possible to evacuate such a large proportion of Afghan interpreters at such short notice is suggested to be a misleading conception of the reality.
Since the introduction of the government’s intimidation policy in 2010, which seeks to resettle at risk Afghan staff who have supported the British Armed Forces, “hundreds have applied to leave” for the UK but have never left. Both former and current defence secretaries, Gavin Williamson and Ben Wallace, failed to make necessary reforms according to de Jong. What Sara highlights as most frustrating was the “missed opportunity” in helping endangered Afghans escape before UK and American forces completely withdrew. Sara said that “there existed a whole window of time when a replacement scheme could have been announced” Before even the prospect of Kabul falling was foreseeable, Sara has told Nouse that she “rallied all the advocates” she had met from seven different countries and sent a letter to the Prime Minister advising the “immediate evacuation of people” on 1 June.
In respect to the problems with ARAP (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy), Sara said that issues existed involving both the “design and implementation” of the policy. Currently, if Afghan interpreters wish to send off an application for resettlement in the UK then they have to fill in an online form. Sara told Nouse that an email address for interpreters to contact had been scrapped and that the government had experimented with “so many different processes.” The online form provides Afghans with a list of contractors and from this each applicant is forced to choose the option which best describes their current occupation. A major weakness of the form identified by Sara is that applicants are provided with no email receipt to give them peace of mind that the form has been received. Interpreters can also not track the progress of their application. Sara informs Nouse that around 80 percent of the occupations on the list will lead to an applicant being rejected.
Only certain occupations such as ‘interpreter’ will receive a positive response. Outsourced staff were “deliberately” omitted from the eligible criteria for resettlement, but The Sulha Alliance’s efforts ensured that the rejection of outsourced staff who had worked at the UK embassy was overturned. Sara gives credit to Sulha for forcing “Dominic Raab to make a U-turn on that.” The UK Government’s response to the Afghan crisis is characterised by Sara as “reactive to events and media pressure.” The Sulha Alliance utilised trusted journalists such as David Williams to reveal the desperate situations Afghan interpreters were experiencing.
Sara told Nouse that “social media made it a lot easier for these people to reach out to us, and Twitter has been particularly helpful.” In Kabul, mobile phones were critical to the successful evacuation of frightened Afghans, as Sara said that “If you were at the airport there was no available helpline to the UK or the Netherlands”. This resulted in many of de Jong’s Dutch colleagues “literally asking Afghans to put google maps in their phones” and to take “two steps back, three steps forward and to then turn right.”
As the fall of Kabul took place, Sara said that “people could literally not find the entrance to the airport.” Certain countries, such as the Netherlands, were initially only willing to evacuate interpreters and this resulted in Sara choosing to campaign for relocation schemes which also included security guards.
Sara told Nouse that “if it wasn’t for Facebook, I would never have known about them (interpreters).” Sara’s work is responsible for at least half of the Dutch security guards who were left in Afghanistan securing safe passage to the Netherlands.
As of Monday 8 November, Sulha was still tracking hundreds of individual ARAP applications. Sara gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee on 16 November and details of this meeting can be found at https://committees.parliament.uk/event/6335/formal-meeting-oral-evidence-session/.