The government was to postpone its decision for several months on the plight of Iraqi interpreters working with the British army in Basra, the defense secretary warned this morning.
Numerous interpreters have been kidnapped, tortured and killed by Iraqi militiamen who accuse them of collaboration with their country's occupiers. The Danish government recently flew all 60 of its interpreters back to Denmark when its troop contingent left Iraq due to the high threat.
Last night, after The Times highlighted the plight of the 91 Iraqis working as translators for the British, Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised hopes by promising a review of Britain's current refusal to treat the interpreters as a special case when considering their claims to be granted asylum in Britain.
But Wednesday, British Defense Secretary Des Browne played down the prospects of an early, positive resolution for the men and their families, and warned it would be autumn before a decision was made.
"People who do interpreting work believe themselves to be particularly [more] vulnerable than other people do," Browne said.
"That's why the prime minister has made it clear that we will review how best to [carry out] our duty of care to these people. That's in hand, I have a responsibility on that, as does the foreign secretary, and we will report to ministers in the autumn."
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 Today, Browne also warned that interpreters who have already had their claims for asylum in Britain turned down almost certainly will not have their cases reviewed.
Officials fear that granting asylum to the translators will set a precedent that might open the floodgates to thousands more claims.
Browne told the BBC that about 20,000 Iraqis had helped British forces since 2003, an increase on the 15,000 quoted by the Home Office on Tuesday night.
"The challenge that we face here is quite complex," Browne said. He also said the government would "move at the appropriate pace" to get its policy right in relation to duty of care "to all of those whom we have a responsibility to."
"We will do what we can in the meantime, as we continue to do, to keep those people who we think are under immediate threat safe," he continued.
It emerged on Tuesday that bitter squabbling among the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in recent months lies behind Tony Blair’s decision not to grant asylum to translators, despite the demands from leading military figures and politicians from all parties that the government should meet a moral obligation to Iraqis who have served Britain.
Baroness Amos, the Leader of the Lords, told peers in April that ministers were looking at how translators might be given asylum.
But, as The Times disclosed on Tuesday, No. 10 wrote to one interpreter on June 22, telling him that he would receive no special favors despite a glowing reference from his military commander. Instead, the interpreter, A. Kinani, was given a Web site address and the advice to travel to a third country to apply for a visa.
One senior Whitehall source, referring to the departmental disagreements, told The Times: “The government as a whole needs to find a way forward on this.”
Another explained the reluctance of the Home Office to give special asylum considerations to the translators by referring to the hundreds of other Iraqis working for different branches of the government. “If staff working for the MoD, why not the FCO, Dfid [Department for International Development] — then NGOs?” the source said.
The interpreters’ plight provoked anger at Westminster and in military circles. Keith Vaz, the Labour MP and chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said in a letter to The Times: “It is in Britain’s moral and strategic interest to hold its reputation as a country that does not abandon those who have staked so much in support of British military operations.”
His view was echoed by William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who said: “To abandon these people to their fate would be unacceptable.”
Damian Green, the Conservatives’ spokesman on immigration, said that anyone whose life was at risk because of work that they had done for Britain must have a “strong case” for asylum.
Lord Fowler, the former Conservative Party chairman, whose son has worked as a foreign correspondent in Iraq and has used translators there, said in another letter to The Times that Britain owes a clear duty to those who have risked their own and their families’ lives to help. He adds that this duty should extend to Iraqis working for British journalists in Iraq.
There was also fury among soldiers who have served in Iraq. One Territorial Army officer who served in Basra in 2003-04 said that his interpreter was visited by militia who held a gun to the head of his wife and children. They threatened to kill him and his family if he did not leave in three days.
“Yet when I took up his case with the Home Office, he was immediately turned down for refugee status,” Major Andrew Alderson, of the TA Queen’s Own Yeomanry, said.
Gen. Sir Roger Wheeler, head of the Army between 1997 and 2000, was one of many former senior officers who supported the interpreters. “If they are seen to be working for the wrong side, their chances of survival are nil,” he said.
Crispin Black, formerly a major in the Welsh Guards and now a security analyst, said: “When the forces of an occupying power leave a country, those who have worked for them face a high risk of retaliation. It is crucially important that we protect those who have helped us.”
A Home Office spokesman said on Tuesday night: “We are extremely grateful for the service provided by locally employed staff in Iraq and take their security very seriously. We recognize that there are concerns about the safety of former employees. The government keeps all such issues under review and will now look again at the assistance we provide.
“The total number of Iraqis who have worked for the government since 2003 with a claim for assistance could be at least 15,000. We therefore need to consider the options carefully.”