London: Religious leaders in the UK have joined a campaign calling for a former Afghan Air Force pilot to be granted asylum in Britain.
It comes in the wake of criticism of the government by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who called its immigration policy “morally unacceptable and politically impractical” earlier this week.
The pilot, whose identity has been kept secret due to security fears, flew dozens of combat missions against the Taliban before fleeing after his country fell to the group in August 2021, and has been described as a “patriot” by former coalition allies.
He has been threatened with deportation to Rwanda, with which the UK has an agreement to send asylum applicants to while awaiting the resolution of their cases, over allegations he entered the UK illegally via boat from France, which is a safe country, having passed through other safe countries en route.
Senior political, media and military figures have called for the pilot to be allowed to stay in the UK. The call is now being echoed by multiple senior faith leaders.
John Perumbalath, bishop of Liverpool, said the UK has a “moral duty” to give the pilot safe haven.
“The government has been woeful in its commitment to Afghan refugees and it is time for them to do the decent thing and reverse this cruel, heartless decision,” he said.
Bishop of Durham Paul Butler said the government had got itself in a “bind” by treating people who arrive in the UK by small boats as criminals.
“I would assume, given his past service, (the pilot) would immediately be welcomed to remain and rebuild his life here,” he added.
The pilot, who has written to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him to examine his case, says he feels “forgotten” by the West and had no alternative but to head to the UK illegally due to a lack of safe, legal routes.
Lord Dannatt, former army chief, has said the pilot should be able to apply for the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, but only 11,000 people have so far been granted asylum under the scheme, with a further 4,300 eligible people yet to be relocated.
Muslim Council of Britain Secretary-General Zara Mohammed said the country “must act to establish safe and legal routes for those seeking asylum in the UK.”
She told The Independent: “The absence of safe and legal routes will only serve to further embolden and enrich human traffickers, endanger the lives of those making the perilous journey across the Channel and make a mockery of our international commitments.”
Ibrahim Mogra, co-chair of the Christian-Muslim Forum and a senior imam in the city of Leicester, said: “Whether you were in support of the war in Afghanistan or against it, these Afghans risked their lives to support our government, so to abandon them like this shows utter disregard for the sacrifices they have made.”
Imam Dr. Usama Hasan, senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said: “Many Afghans risked their lives against a brutal enemy in the Taliban. So it’s right and proper that those who helped the British war effort should be given asylum in this country.”
Paul McAleenan, the Roman Catholic bishop of Westminster, told The Independent: “Establishing more safe routes, and genuinely understanding people’s individual circumstances, are essential.”
Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, described the UK’s small boat policy as “pandering to bigotry,” saying: “It is particularly cruel to threaten to send people who have helped us in good faith to get a better government in Afghanistan. It shows us in a very, very bad light.”
He added: “Threatening to send people to Rwanda if they dare to come to our shores shows a total callousness. Rwanda is not a safe country.”
Senior British rabbis also joined the campaign, with Josh Levy, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, saying: “If (migrants) reached here on a boat, it is because there was no other choice. An inability to find the flexibility in these cases is inexcusable.”
Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue said: “If ever there was an exception to the rule, this (the pilot’s case) is it.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Since 2015, we have offered a safe and legal route to the UK to almost half a million men, women and children seeking safety — including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees.”