Once deployed, now unemployed: Afghan interpreters seek jobs in UK

Portraits of three Afghan interpreters now living in Britain with their faces blurred to protect their identities. Andy Barnham/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Portraits of three Afghan interpreters now living in Britain with their faces blurred to protect their identities. Andy Barnham/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Afghan interpreters evacuated to UK say glowing references from their British military bosses now count for little.

Sara de Jong is co-founder of The Sulha Alliance, a charity supporting Afghan interpreters who worked for the British Army

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan a year ago, Britain evacuated hundreds of Afghan interpreters who had risked their lives working for British forces.

They brought with them glowing references from their former military bosses, testifying to their skills, loyalty and work ethic. But now all this stands for nothing as they try to find work in Britain.

A year ago, Imran arrived on the last evacuation flight from Kabul. In a modest flat in the south of England, where he recently moved with his wife and two children, he shows me the certificates of appreciation he received while working for the British Army.

One reference describes him as a "respected member of the team" and praises his "professional character". 

"He’s proven honest and trustworthy," it reads. "He can confidently be recommended for further operations. He has repeatedly proven his worth and will continue to do so for future units. His commitment is a credit to his profession."

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But at his local Job Centre, they tell Imran he needs to build work experience in the UK in order to get a job. The certificates he has held onto for years, are suddenly deemed worthless. Even though his first job as a young adult was with a British employer, he is now treated as a stranger. And no one seems to value the skills he was once praised for.

Imran - who asked me to use a pseudonym - is among about 500 former Afghan employees with the UK Ministry of Defence who were evacuated last summer. Others have since managed to get out via Pakistan. Imran was 17 when he started as an interpreter, a similar age to most of the others employed by the British Army.

For someone who has risked his life to support his family and his country, it is hard to suddenly sit at home without work. The longer Afghan interpreters lack the dignity and opportunities to integrate that are provided by suitable work, the more likely it is that their war trauma will catch up with them. But Imran doesn’t just need a job for himself, he needs to support his family back in Afghanistan, now in the grip of an economic crisis.

"My parents are sick, they need medication," he tells me. "You know the situation in Afghanistan, there is no money, no job, everyone is just starving there."

Imran’s wife was working in a beauty salon back in Afghanistan and hopes to do the same in the UK, once her English has improved.

When he started working for the British Army, Imran was fit and healthy. But in one of the operations, his vehicle was blown up, and he lost hearing in one ear. All the money he earned went on medical treatment and he lost his job as an interpreter. Now 10 years later he still feels pain and hears banging noises.

Other interpreters I spoke to have injuries that exclude them from physical jobs. Hewad, who found work as a shop assistant with the help of a British veteran, has had to reduce his hours because his leg injury means he cannot stand for a full shift.

Imran is lucky in that he has been resettled in a town close to a city with transport connections. But several former interpreters have found themselves in isolated areas in Scotland or Wales with extremely few job opportunities.

Their requests to be moved elsewhere go unheard. They want to get started with their life in the UK, support their family, and be distracted from the flashbacks they still suffer and the news about Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and the Taliban's oppression.

The longer that former Afghan interpreters remain unemployed, or underemployed in jobs that don’t recognise their skills, the harder it will become for them to secure rewarding jobs that make use of their talents.

This has been the experience of some 450 Afghan interpreters who were relocated to the UK about six years ago. Although they had been selected for resettlement because they had worked in high risk and visible roles, they received no help in finding work from military charities or the Ministry of Defence.

You might meet one of them if you order an Uber taxi in Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle or Plymouth, as driving taxis has become their main source of employment.

Last summer's evacuation has led to some veteran charities such as JobOppo stepping in and offering employment support, including CV workshops and introductions to employers who have signed up to veteran employment schemes.

But that support is still limited. Men like Imran need employers to recognise their skills and past work record for the British forces and to give them a chance to once again "become a respected member of the team". Imran and other interpreters risked their lives, sustaining physical and psychological injuries, to keep British soldiers safe. The very least we can do is to help them get jobs that recognise their capabilities and don’t treat them like strangers to British employment.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An Afghan woman holds her phone after an election campaign by Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in Kabul June 8, 2014

Part of:

Afghanistan: Two years of Taliban rule

Two years ago, the Taliban took Kabul. From spiraling poverty to banning women from education, here are our stories on the impact

Updated: August 10, 2023


  • Unemployment
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