A death sentence for UK's Iraqi employees

Before this issue was brought to my attention by a constituent, I was, as I’m sure most people were, blissfully unaware of the horrific fate befalling Iraqis who had been employed by the British Forces.

For example, many Iraqis employed by the British are tortured when found by the Iraqi death-squads. Like Haidr al-Mtury, a translator for the British, who had holes drilled into his hands and knees before both legs were broken and acid was poured over his face. Only then did a bullet to the head put an end to his suffering. These Iraqis are people whose intelligence and work the British Forces lives have been dependant upon. Yet the fact is that the British government is treating these people as if they are applying for means tested benefit – not like people who are fleeing for their lives.

The British treatment of Iraqi employees stands in stark contrast to the employees of the Danes. When the Danish government pulled their troops out of Iraq at the beginning of August, they foresaw the perils facing their staff and immediately acted, chartering a flight that took all 60 of their Iraqi staff, and their families, straight to Copenhagen and a new life without fear.

Unfortunately, our government has adopted a rather more pedestrian approach. Since The Times newspaper and the blogosphere first brought this issue into prominence in early August the government has amazed us all with their impotence and incompetence. Eventually, a two-month review into the situation was commissioned by Gordon Brown, which must have been a great comfort to the Iraqi employees staring death in the face every time they walked a Basra street.

Eventually, on October 30th David Miliband issued a statement clarifying the situation. Iraqi employees could come and start a great new life in Britain, and all they’d have to fear was our nanny state. So that was problem solved wasn’t it?

The deafening silence from the media and Conservative Party would suggest so, but as so often is the case, the devil was very much in the detail. Even though Mr Miliband was kind enough to acknowledge the blatantly obvious truth that: "we owe our Iraqi staff an enormous debt of gratitude", he still felt that it was important that rigorous criteria were applied in order that the plan was "practical, realistic and preserves the integrity of wider immigration and asylum policy."

Thus, an eligibility criterion of 12 months continuous service has been put in place to make sure the numbers are kept down. This is frankly absurd, from both a moral and a practical standpoint. Firstly, clearly our debt of duty is owed to all whose lives have been put at risk by working for us: the death squads in Iraq don’t stop to ask how long interpreters have been employed, so why should we. This isn’t means tested benefits they’re applying for; it is escape from near-certain death.

Secondly, there is a clear practical impediment to setting the bar at 12 months service. Army tours typically last six months and so that is also the length of employment for most interpreters. Whilst some then take up positions either with other units, government departments or US Forces, collation and record-keeping have been inexcusably poor, in some cases non-existent, and so at-risk employees struggle to prove their eligibility.

Furthermore, employees who worked for the British in the two years prior to 2005 also find themselves with no right to asylum; abandoned to their fates and very much at risk.

The Liberal Democrats are leading the fight to force the government to rethink their policies on Iraqi employees. This is a matter for moral not political consideration. We must grant asylum to anyone who worked for the British and now faces mortal danger. Assessment of risk; not length, or time of service must be the only criteria.

The government’s protracted review has brought us a remarkably poorly thought out policy that is practically unsustainable and morally unforgivable. The death squads won’t wait and neither should we; the government must act immediately or it will have the blood of Iraqi employees on its hands.

Sign our Iraqi interpreters petition here

This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat News. For subscription details, click here.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007