The new Brown government in Britain is pontificating about U.S. moral standards in Guantanamo, but at the same time it is behaving abysmally toward its own moral obligations in Iraq. The British Army is moving from engagement to “overwatch” in southern Iraq as it prepares to withdraw in the next few months, almost regardless of concerns in Washington.
Under its current policy, it will be leaving behind those who have helped its forces however. About 20,000 Iraqis have worked for British forces since 2003. Some of these have been killed as collaborators, others have fled to Jordan or Syria. This week attention has been focused on the 91 Iraqi interpreters who still are in British employment.
They have faced two main dangers: the daily risks of bombs and bullets as they accompany British soldiers, but also the even graver threat of horrific torture and death from the militias if they leave their bases to return to visit their families. When the British quit they will be killed as “traitors.” Unsurprisingly, they want asylum in Great Britain.
The British government, despite protests by senior serving army officers, has made no special arrangements — technically, each Iraqi has to make his own way to Britain and then join a long queue to seek asylum. Even if the translator managed to surmount these bureaucratic hurdles, his family would still be left at the mercy of the militias.
The shadow Conservative foreign secretary, William Hague, said that looking after these translators is a “matter of honor.”
The United States has employed about 5,000 translators, of whom 250 have been murdered. Washington has raised the number of visas from 50 to 500 for Iraqis working with U.S. troops. The waiting list is still six years long, though the United States plans to admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees later this year. Congress is to debate legislation that could allow in another 60,000. This should at least more than cover those who have risked all in helping America.
Spain was compassionate in helping its Iraqi workers when it withdrew. Poland has said it will not desert its Iraqi employees. Last month, Denmark airlifted out 200 Iraqis, including translators and their families.
The United Nation has estimated that 20,000 Iraqis will need to be resettled permanently when all coalition troops leave, to avoid retribution as collaborators.
This is not an easy problem to solve, especially in Britain, where immigration has become a hot political issue. British governments have been remarkably soft on deporting convicted jihadists, or even foreign nationals convicted of crimes such as rape and murder. But loyal Iraqi translators have been given the cold shoulder.
Army officers, especially those who have served in Iraq, are furious, but the political decision-makers are dragging their feet, as they have with Nepalese Gurkha troops who have sought to live in Britain. Since 1997 they have been granted that right. But those who served with distinction in World War II, the Falklands and the first Gulf war have not. A recent test case was Tul Bahadur Pun, 84, who won the highest British medal for valor, the Victoria Cross. He was refused residency after seeking medical treatment in Britain. Eventually a public outcry managed to reverse the decision. This led to a reconsideration of another 2,000 applicants.
I have had the privilege of working alongside Gurkha soldiers, among the toughest and most loyal troops in the world. I also have firsthand experience with Iraqi translators. Quite simply, since so few coalition troops speak Arabic, without the help of these men, Anglo-American forces could not have functioned at all.
Winning this long war is about finding, and keeping, allies. Dumping loyal co-workers is no way to do business. All of the Iraqi translators working with the British — and their families — should be given the option of returning to Britain when the army departs. It will be a long exile, but it is better than death. They should be given medals, thanks and a generous resettlement allowance. And if they so wish, they should be given an opportunity to help the domestic security services, who need loyal Arabic speakers. That is the least these brave men deserve.
The British government should hang its head in shame.
Paul Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis. He worked extensively in the British Ministry of Defense.
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