Visa Red Tape ‘Blocking Road To Freedom’ For Army’s Iraqi Interpreters

Visa red tape Blocking road to freedom for Army's Iraqi interpreters

Deborah Haynes in Baghdad and Sam Coates,
Chief Political Correspondent
Times On Line
From The Times
November 19, 2007

Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives helping the British Army are finding it very difficult to come to Britain because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office insists that they travel to Jordan or Syria first, the UN refugee agency has said.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is working with the British Government, said that new visa restrictions imposed by Jordan and Syria were causing practical problems and were effectively preventing entry to Iraqis, and suggested that the Foreign Office could have acted differently. A regional spokeswoman told The Times: Another country succeeded in resettling their employees directly from Iraq. The visa restrictions imposed by both Jordan and Syria are making it very difficult for Iraqis to enter both countries.

The British decision, announced by the Foreign Secretary this year, requires interpreters and other staff to go to a neighbouring country to apply for asylum. This is in contrast to Denmark, which airlifted almost 400 former Iraqi staff and their families to Copenhagen as part of a separate assistance programme this year.

The UNHCR added that interpreters who helped the British were unlikely to be treated as priorities if they managed to leave Iraq. There are many people with pressing concerns, and we fast-track the very sick and vulnerable, but the healthy are asked to wait in line, the spokeswoman said.

She suggested that some may face further difficulties. Only a small percentage of refugees will be resettled to third countries, due to the small number of places available. While the British Government may prioritise interpreters for resettlement, UNHCR has a long list of extremely pressing resettlement cases that [it] prioritises. Registration may result in the refugee being referred for assistance if the refugee needs financial support and food support. It may result in referral for resettlement. It may not.

Iraqis have told The Times that they fear for their lives because they find it impossible to reach Jordan or Syria. The interpreters believe that they have become an even bigger target for militia death squads since the British Government raised their profile by pledging to look at their case in August. One former Iraqi interpreter, who is in hiding in Basra, said: lease tell your Government about our suffering. If the asylum takes time we could be dead, surely dead, before receiving it. The 29-year-old man moves from house to house under the cover of night for fear of being spotted by the militias. Despite leaving his job of three years in September 2006 he was told in an anonymous phone call: know you are a spy. We will kill you and kill all the traitors whenever and wherever we find you.

I. K. Salman, who worked as an interpreter from August 2003 until March 2005, managed to reach Syria but said that the application process was fraught with difficulties. He waited three months for an appointment at UNHCR, only to be handed a refugee certificate last week that enabled him to remain in Syria for another year while awaiting possible resettlement. Mr Salman filled in an application form last month to be considered for specific help from Britain, but last week he received a phone call from the British Embassy in Damascus telling him that he needed to complete a new form because the initial version had been cancelled.

Now I realise that I have been trapped, Mr Salman said. I worked with full loyalty for the British Army, risked my life and my family's lives. Now I found myself forced to leave my own country, brutally cut from my roots. I have lost my career and finally here I am neglected in Syria, jobless and within a few months [when the money runs out] homeless. Believe me, it would be better to be beheaded in my own country than have the feeling that I have been cheated like a useless idiot. The only thing that stops me from going back to Iraq is my family.

In August the Foreign Office announced that former interpreters and other staff who had worked for the military or a government department in Iraq would have the choice of financial aid or the chance of asylum through the Gateway Protection Programme, which is run in partnership with the UNHCR. It has not, however, granted those staff special leave to enter Britain, a coveted option that is being given to Iraqis who are still employed by the British.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said that the Government made this distinction because many individuals may have relocated since leaving their jobs, so it may be difficult for them to return to their former places of work. He said that the Foreign Office would help former interpreters to reach Jordan and Syria, but he admitted that once they were there they could face delays of several months. have promised financial support for staff going through this process, he said.

The Foreign Office said that about 200 people had expressed an interest in the options that were available. The Home Office will send two teams to the Middle East next year to interview applicants for up to 500 places on the Gateway programme, but a lack of housing in Britain could reduce the number of Iraqis who are resettled.

Resettlement options

? Iraqi interpreters who were eligible estimated at 400 to 500 were invited to apply for one of three packages:

? One-off financial assistance, amounting to a month's pay for every two months service, plus 10 per cent for each dependant

? Resettlement through the refugee scheme. Provision has been made for 600 staff and dependents to enter the UK through this method

? Exceptional leave to remain in the UK, outside the immigration rules. This is reserved for only the most deserving candidates To be eligible for help, staff must have worked continuously for 12 months since January 2005

Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office


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