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Transcript of Interview with Julian Lewis MP about Scholars trapped in Afghanistan

BBC News Channel – 26 August 2021

Annita McVeigh: The Council for At-Risk Academics [CARA] is trying to get some people out of Afghanistan – it's something that the MP Julian Lewis has been pushing for. Let’s talk to him now. Mr Lewis, thanks for joining us on BBC News, this afternoon. I understand that one of this group of 12 academics is the sister-in-law of a constituent of yours and that’s how you’ve become involved in this, I guess. How grave is the threat to this group?

Julian Lewis: Well, I think it is extremely grave to a number of individuals in the group, and I want to give all credit to a network of British Universities. I have a short list: Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial, LSE and indeed – near my constituency – Southampton University, that have actually offered sponsorship, studentships and visiting fellowships to 12 at-risk academics in Afghanistan. So, there's sponsorship there, there are University posts there. All that’s required – “all” in inverted commas – is to get them safely out of the country. And I must say, before I even knew the name of your last person speaking on this programme [Dr Hans-Jakob Schindler from the Counter Extremism Project], I had written down that this is going to be Boris Johnson’s “Schindler’s List” moment, because there are 12 people, who in a sense represent the future of Afghanistan, and who need to be saved.

Annita McVeigh: And that is the big question, though, how can they get out now? I appreciate you will want to be extremely careful about what you say about their circumstances at the moment. Are you in a position to say whether they are close to the airport, or are they in hiding?

Julian Lewis: A number of these people are in Kabul; but the idea that, without being called and sent for by the Government, that they should then proceed willy-nilly to the airport, I think is really unrealistic and too dangerous. Therefore, the question is – because I know that at least three Cabinet Ministers are aware of this group – the question is: are the Government going to send out an escort to pick up these people, some of whom are in hiding? They have all the details, all the credentials, and the whole point, as you will have realised from the earlier interview, at about 11 o’clock, with the Director of the Council for At-Risk Academics – an organisation that was founded to save Jewish intellectuals from the Nazi regime in the 1930s – you will have realised from this that they are all ready and waiting to look after these people if, in fact, they can be extracted.

I was impressed by Ben Wallace’s statement to MPs yesterday when he said that, if people can get to third countries, then the process of getting qualified people into the United Kingdom will continue. And the point about the organisation CARA is that they have been working for more than 80 years in validating people, so there is no risk that anyone they put forward isn’t supremely qualified to come to this country and take up an academic position in one of the Universities.

Annita McVeigh: But to come back to the process of getting to that point. What have the Cabinet Ministers said to you about your request to try to get this group out?

Julian Lewis: Well, they've all said that they fed it into the system, and we are all waiting to hear whether the call will come. All I want to use this programme to do – and I would perhaps urge the BBC to do – is to think outside the box a bit, and challenge Education Ministers. Education Ministers are not directly involved in the Afghanistan disaster at the moment, except that here is a chance to have a sort of Noah's Ark moment, if you like, to save the cream of Afghan intellectuals; but it requires a Minister to get the people who, even now, are still organising the list of those they are going to rescue, to go out and get these 12 scholars and bring them to the airport to safety.

Annita McVeigh: If they cannot get out from the Kabul airport before the next few days – and indeed the UK operation is likely to wind up before that, isn’t it – how difficult, do you think, communication will become in terms of efforts to get them to a border crossing?

Julian Lewis: Well, I really would rather not talk about anything like that. I would hope that it would still be possible to communicate one way or another with these people, some of whom are in deeper hiding than others. They themselves, obviously, must have to be the final arbiters of what risk they are going to take: the risk of staying put and being persecuted or worse, or the risk of being waylaid upon their route to the borders of a third country. At the end of the day, because – thanks to the disastrous policies of two successive American Presidents – these people have had their expectations raised and their profiles exposed to an extreme degree of danger.

At the end of all that process, we don’t have that degree of control. It will be up to the individuals themselves to make the best judgements of whether they think they can get to a third country or not. What I am confident about is that, if they can get to a third country, there will be plenty of us who will be arguing, until people are sick of hearing from us, that they must be brought from that third country to take up the positions that are ready and waiting for them in leading British Universities. This is in the long tradition of saving intellectuals from totalitarianism and barbarism, and we have an important flame to pass on to future generations. We don’t want a film being made in the future about how there was no Schindler’s Ark or Schindler’s List to save these very talented and gifted people, who represent the best aspects of the future of Afghanistan.

Annita McVeigh: Julian Lewis, we will keep an eye on this situation, absolutely. Thank you for talking to us about this. Julian Lewis, who is working with the Council for At-Risk Academics to try to get that group out of Kabul, out of Afghanistan.