The Sulha Alliance has three pillars: 1) supporting interpreters left in Afghanistan; 2) supporting those stuck in asylum systems elsewhere; and 3) providing support for interpreters in the UK. The Sulha Network is a peer support and advocacy group focussing on pillar 3: Afghan interpreters settled in the UK.
The Sulha Network was started in 2016 when Captain Ed Aitken met his former Interpreter (name withheld for security) in Manchester after he resettled as part of the Ex Gratia Scheme. It became apparent that the support given to the Afghan Interpreters in the UK was wholly inadequate. The resettled interpreters hoped the UK would be similar to the military family they had been part of, with values of respect and loyalty.
Sadly many of them found themselves struggling to find a sense of identity and place within British society, not helped by the Home Office allocating very limited case worker support through Local Authorities and a complete lack of interest or ownership from the Ministry of Defence. Many of them faced mental health problems due to their exposure to years of combat operations. Now the sense of abandonment far away from their traditional family support structures became too much.
A lack of communication from the Home Office meant the visa status of the newly arrived interpreters was often unrecognised by local authorities, the NHS, employers and even the JobCenter. They found themselves unable to establish themselves, unable find meaningful employment and unable to contribute to society in the way they wanted.
The Sulha Network was created by Ed and his interpreter as a self-help network, to give a sense of community and to create a unified voice around the issues the interpreters faced. It started, and remains, as a simple WhatsApp group where government policies and visa-application documents are shared; useful experiences and advice is given; and good news stories celebrated. It now hosts the majority of the Afghan Interpreter population in the UK and is an excellent source of information on the issues the interpreters are facing on the ground.
As well as being a support group, the Sulha Network has been the principle lobbying power for the rights of the Afghan interpreters currently based in the UK.
The significance of the group only increased in 2018 in the wake of the Windrush Scandal when Amber Rudd stepped down and Home Secretary Sajid Javid took her place. A well-timed letter to the Home Secretary, signed by all the members of the Sulha Network, with support from Larisa Brown at the Daily Mail, resulted in Javid using the Afghan Interpreters as his cause célèbre to launch his time in office.
The Sulha Network's Demands:
Javid conceded to two out of the three demands of the Sulha Network letter; that all Afghan interpreters should have automatic Indefinite Leave to Remain (rather than the 5-year limited visa they were given which excluded them from all but the most insecure jobs); and that the £2000 fee to convert their visas to ILR would be waived. Since these very public successes, the Sulha Network has appeared on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme and in numerous media pieces.
The third demand to reunify those who had wives and children in Afghanistan and now wanted to bring them to the UK would take another year of lobbying the Immigration Minister Caroline Noakes. Finally, in July 2019 a policy change was announced that Afghan interpreters could bring wives and children to join them in the UK. Sadly, the implementation of the policy is falling short with more than 120 children and spouses still waiting.
Transition to Civilian Life:
The Sulha Network has lobbied the MOD for greater support to the Afghan interpreters in the same way that the Ministry supports its own service men and women when they transition into civilian life as veterans, but with little success. It has created initiatives to make Mental Health support more accessible to the community and it has worked alongside the Afghan and Central Asian Association to bring dozens of ex-interpreters to a Parliamentary Meeting in the Palace of Westminster.
The Sulha Alliance is currently in discussions with Help 4 Heroes to find ways to support the Afghan interpreters with housing, education and employment opportunities, mental health support and creating a sense of national recognition. All functions that the Sulha Alliance argues should be a responsibility of the Government.
The Sulha Alliance believe there is a debt of honour and gratitude that does not stop when the Afghan Interpreters arrive in the UK. In the same way that we support our veterans, many of whom struggle with a transition from military to civilian life, so too the Afghan interpreters arguably need much more support with their transition into an entirely different world.