London: A former Afghan military pilot locked in a battle to remain in the UK as a refugee has been granted asylum.
The pilot, who flew numerous missions against the Taliban and was described as a “patriot” by coalition allies who worked with him, travelled to Britain illegally through several safe countries and across the English Channel in a small boat, having found it “impossible” to find legal means of reaching the UK.
His asylum application was initially rejected, and he was threatened with deportation to Rwanda, but following a long campaign led by UK newspaper The Independent, supported by numerous politicians and military figures and which even posed questions directly to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over the case, that decision has been overturned.
The UK Home Office accepted the pilot’s claim that he had a “well-founded fear of persecution, and therefore cannot return to (his) country of origin.”
The pilot told The Independent: “I am really happy, completely happy. When they sent me the Rwanda letter I was in shock at how they could send me this kind of letter, but this morning I was equally shocked to see that they had granted me asylum. I couldn’t believe it.
“I want to say thank you very much to every one of you who has supported me,” he added.
“I read the letter and I thought, maybe I’m not understanding it, but really it was clear. I can stay in the UK and I have been given a life here. When I realized it fully, I became really, really happy at the result. And I am also really surprised.
“I have told my wife I have some important news for her. I hope she will be able to join me here soon.”
The pilot’s fight, though, is not yet over. He has still to bring his family, who are in hiding in Afghanistan, over to the UK in a process that can take years, with the waiting list at more than 11,000 for people seeking to relocate to join relatives in the UK. Having been living in a hotel on a grant of just £9 ($11.42) per week, he will also lose all government financial support within a month, and will need to find a job to support himself.
The decision to grant the pilot asylum was welcomed by those who supported his campaign.
Former head of the British Army Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt said he was “delighted,” while Lord Hutton, the former defense secretary, said that “justice has been done.”
Many, though, also voiced frustration that the process had taken so long, and said others were still stuck in similar situations.
Former UK naval staff chief Admiral Lord West said it was “unfortunate that it took so long to look at his case properly,” while Sir Laurie Bristow, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, told The Independent: “I’m glad for him — it’s very good news. The underlying principle is that we should be fulfilling our obligation to the people who worked for us and with us, and whose lives are at risk as a result.”
Gen. Sir John McColl, the former deputy supreme allied commander for Europe, told The Independent: “The unfortunate thing is that there are many still marooned in Afghanistan and Pakistan, accepted as deserving support after fighting alongside us, waiting to get permission to come here. We’re still waiting for a coherent, focused plan. They are being treated as out of sight and out of mind.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, said: “I hope we help as many people as possible who have reason to be here. It seems very difficult to get the process going any faster, but for the people over there it’s a nightmare.”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “I’m glad that things have been made right in this case, but it’s hard to keep something similar from happening again without real change.”
The pilot was supported through his ordeal by refugee charity Care4Calais. Its CEO, Steve Smith MBE, a former army colonel, said: “The pilot is an incredible person. We are proud of how he has conducted himself throughout this ordeal, and are honored to have supported him.
“This is a great outcome for the pilot, but it’s not the end. His young family remain in danger in Afghanistan, and steps should be taken to reunite them in the UK as soon as possible.”
A government spokesperson said: “The government provides a safe and legal route through its family reunion policy which enables individuals with protection status in the UK to sponsor their partner or children to stay with or join them here, provided they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country of origin to seek protection.”