The air force lieutenant, who fled the Taliban and came to the UK on a small boat because it was “impossible” to get here via a legal route, was previously rejected under the government’s Afghan resettlement scheme – sparking fury from top politicians and military figures, who called it “shameful” that Britain should turn its back on the war hero.
But in a dramatic turn of events, the Home Office has now accepted that he has a “well-founded fear of persecution and therefore cannot return to [his] country of origin”.
The move comes after months of government indecision, questioning of the pilot’s work with UK forces by the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, and resistance from defence secretary Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak when they were asked to intervene in his case.
The pilot, who was forced to leave his young family in hiding in Afghanistan, said he was “completely happy” that the Home Office had finally answered his plea to stay in the UK.
General Sir Richard Barrons, a former commander of the UK Joint Forces Command – the organisation now known as Strategic Command – applauded the decision, but said that the government’s threat to send the pilot to Rwanda was no way to repay the debt Britain owes him for his military service.
“Illegal entry to the UK is certainly a problem, but once the facts of this case had become clear, a ticket to Rwanda was not only the wrong answer, it also made our promises look hollow and it diminished the sense of fairness and honour we lay claim to as a country,” he said.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, said he was “delighted” that the government had backed down – but questioned why it had taken “so long to do the right thing”.
Former defence secretary John Hutton, now Lord Hutton, congratulated The Independent and said “justice has been done”, while former defence minister Kevan Jones said the threat to put the pilot on a one-way flight to Rwanda had “clashed with a sense of fair play”.
The war veteran’s refugee status means he can now get a job in the UK, but his battle is far from over as he will lose all government support within 28 days and faces what could be a year-long wait to bring his family to safety.
He 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.”
He continued: “I want to say thank you very much to every one of you who has supported me. Thank you to The Independent, I really appreciate you, you worked very hard for me. I will not forget how you helped me.
“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 realised 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.”
Those who backed our campaign welcomed the decision to grant the pilot asylum, but urged the government to honour its pledge to bring thousands of eligible Afghans stuck in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries to the UK.
Admiral Lord West, the chief of UK naval staff from 2002 to 2006, said: “I’m delighted we got there – it’s the right decision.”
He added that it was “unfortunate that it took so long to look at his case properly”. “The Home Office has now shown it’s possible – so if there are other Afghans in the same position who have a legitimate case, we must sort them out too,” he said.
Lord Dannatt, the former army chief, said: “I’m delighted. It’s the right outcome and I’m very pleased. But there is some frustration, too. Why did it take so long to do the right thing? The case was right months ago – so why on earth didn’t they do it then?”
Sir Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador to Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul in 2021, said: “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.”
Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, said that the party “strongly welcomes” the decision. He said that the saga showed how “the Conservatives have failed the brave Afghans who supported British troops before the fall of Afghanistan, and they have failed them since”.
And former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “If he has been able to show he fought with us against the Taliban and is in danger, then he is welcome. There are people who came to us for help after the [evacuation] debacle, and we owe them.”
Urging the government to give sanctuary to those who have already accepted under the Ministry of Defence’s resettlement scheme but remain in limbo in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sir Iain added: “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.”
General Sir John McColl, the army’s former deputy supreme allied commander for Europe, said: “It’s good news – it’s disgraceful that it’s taken a campaign by The Independent to achieve what should have been a just outcome months ago.
“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.”
The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said The Independent’s campaign had “highlighted the flaws” in government policy. “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,” he said.
Lord Hutton said: “I think this is a great result. Justice has been done. It is, however, extraordinary that it takes a campaign like this to see Afghan veterans treated in the appropriate way. Well done to The Independent.”
Steve Smith MBE, a former army colonel and the CEO of refugee charity Care4Calais, which supported the pilot’s case, said everyone at the charity was “delighted with the news”. He added: “The pilot is an incredible person. We are proud of how he has conducted himself throughout this ordeal, and honoured to have supported him.
“We are very grateful for The Independent’s campaign on behalf of Afghan veterans. 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.”
The pilot will now be able to work and study in the UK and to apply for his young family, who are currently in Afghanistan, to join him here. Refugees sometimes have to wait for more than a year for their family reunification applications to be processed, with figures obtained by The Independent last month showing that there is a backlog of more than 11,000 people waiting for relocation to the UK to join family members.
Given that he has been granted refugee status, the pilot will now have 28 days to find a new place to live and find a job to support himself. He has so far been housed in Home Office hotel accommodation, and received £9 a week in support payments.
A spokesperson for the government said it did not comment on individual cases, adding: “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.”