Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers who risked their lives serving in the British Army tell Channel 4 News they want the government to review a new law which leaves them subject to imminent deportation.
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Under current rules Foreign and Commonwealth troops can claim British citizenship after four years of military service.
But a new law, which appears to be increasingly used against foreign soldiers who have been disciplined at commanding officer level, is leaving them without basic rights or status.
Channel 4 News has uncovered at least 15 cases where troops from Fiji, Jamaica and other Commonwealth nations have been refused British citizenship following their discharge from service; lost all rights to work, healthcare and benefits; and been labelled "not of good character" by the UK Border Agency.
Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers who are dealt with summarily for minor charges while serving are finding that when they leave the armed forces those misdemeanours are being treated as civil crimes. Having a criminal record then precludes them from getting citizenship or legal right to remain in the UK. Once identified as "illegals" they become subject to deportation.
Veterans' Aid (VA), a small charity which has provided pro bono advocacy for these soldiers, says it has seen at least 100 such cases over the last year. Chief Executive Dr Hugh Milroy told Channel 4 News: "We've dealt with well over a hundred cases since we've been doing this, but what is interesting is that each case takes such a long time. In fact for one case it was 18 months. So that's without income; without work. It's a very difficult system to work with. But the point is this morning we had six calls, two of them from serving soldiers."
One solder being helped by VA is Lance Corporal Isimeli "Bale" Baleiwai, formerly of the Royal Scottish Regiment and the Royal Electical and Mechanical Engineers, later seconded to the Household Cavalry. Fijian, he has a British wife, Kim, and two British children. He has been refused British citizenship after voluntarily leaving the Army and is due to be deported on the 9 August.
L/Cpl Baleiwai told Channel 4 News: "It was an altercation with another soldier inside a military camp. It was dealt with in-house in a summary dealing. No jury or witnesses or anything. I got charged £1,000 for it and then on the rejection letter the UKBA have said that this military conviction that I had equates to civil law, yet there wasn't any jury."
A UK Border Agency spokesperson told Channel 4 News: "Applications for settlement from former HM Forces personnel are considered in the same way as all other applications for settlement. This involves consideration of a range of factors including unspent convictions, whether passed by military courts or resulting from police involvement."
"I've risked my life for Queen and country, done operational tours and all I wanted to do was just come out (of the Army) and have a normal family life.... I feel betrayed to be honest" L/Cpl Baleiwai
Under an amendment in April last year to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, it states: "... any finding that a person is guilty of an offence in respect of any act or omission which was the subject of service disciplinary proceedings shall be treated as a conviction and any punishment awarded... in respect of any such finding shall be treated as a sentence."
In September the UK Border Agency published its ‘Criminality requirement for settlement' guidance. It states: "From 6 April 2011 a person who applies for settlement must show that they do not have any unspent convictions (as defined by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974)."
These changes mean that Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers, who receive a military summary punishment from their commanding officer for even minor non-criminal offences, will be given a criminal conviction in civilian life. As a result they will be mandatorily refused British citizenship upon discharge from the Army.
The previous rules allowed for discretion over such decisions.
Queen & Country
L/Cpl Baleiwai's wife, Kim, told Channel 4 News: "I was devastated by the news and I understood the implications it had on us as a family and other foreign and Commonwealth soldiers' families. I felt ashamed to be British."
L Cpl Baleiwai served in the British Army for 13 years, a period that included five operational tours in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Commended by his s/nior officers as a soldier "of the highest standard", and "a natural leader", he was noted for his bravery when "he was instrumental in the recovery and repair of a JACKAL under close enemy contact" during Operation Herrick 11. He was even used to promote the Army in a recruitment magazine.
L/Cpl Baleiwai said: "I've risked my life for Queen and country, done operational tours and all I wanted to do was just come out (of the Army) and have a normal family life. It's quite devastating. Our lives have been turned upside down through this decision that's been made by the Home Office. I feel betrayed to be honest."
During his service he was awarded four medals. He has qualified for the Diamond Jubilee medal, which in normal circumstances would be quite an honour for any British soldier, but L/Cpl Baleiwai has rejected it: "What's the point? I'll be on the jet plane back to Fiji on 9 August if nothing is sorted before then and I just don't see any point in getting that Diamond Jubilee because that won't mean anything at all to me."
"It's not fair. It's discriminatory towards Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers. To find out that known terrorists have more rights than me, it's beyond anything I can imagine."
Wiping a tear from her eye, Kim Baleiwai interjects: "I find it very sad to hear that. The Queen would find that sad as well to know that somebody who served her could be treated like that and the medals become meaningless. They're not meaningless. These young men and women really earned those medals and they should wear them with pride and it seems a shame that they can be tainted."
The couple's anger and frustration is only heightened by their belief that the Military Covenant, which the Ministry of Defence announced last year to protect and support the British veterans, is failing them. Kim Baleiwai said: "I don't think the Military Covenant is worth the paper it's written on. I think that army families and service personnel are being used by this government as propaganda for something that these politicians don't have and that's integrity. If they really believed in this covenant then they would have followed it through in policy and practice."
L/Cpl Baleiwai agrees and is baffled by the new law. He said: "It's not fair. It's discriminatory towards Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers. To find out that known terrorists have more rights than me, it's beyond anything I can imagine. I haven't got the right to go and see a doctor, claim benefits or even work, all because of my immigration status. I haven't got any."
Kim Baleiwai often ponders what the motivation was behind the change in law. She said: "I don't know whether they just didn't think the law through or whether they're trying to keep their numbers down or if they just really don't care. It feels to us right now that nobody really does care about our family and my husband's service.
"They are breaking my family up. We are trying to be a decent hard working British family and they're making it very difficult for us to be that way. It doesn't seem to fit with any of the things that they talk about at the moment. Talk about broken Britain, they are breaking my family."
There are currently 8,505 foreign and Commonwealth soldiers serving in the British forces, not including the 3,880 Gurkhas who previously won the right to residency.
Of these some 2,200 are Fijian, like L Cpl Baleiwai. His case is "just the tip of the iceberg", according to Veterans' Aid, who say there are many more soldiers affected.
Dr Milroy said: "Just the other day we had a serving soldier came here. He'd been on deployment, but prior to deployment he had had a car incident. He'd been charged with careless driving in his absence, found guilty in his absence, came back to find it had all happened and he now has discovered that he won't be able to stay in this country.
"These cases show that one government department will push it off to another government department and it seems to me now is the time that we look at a department of veteran affairs, having a veterans' ombudsman that will review some of these things."
"You sign up to serve and protect your Queen and country. You do your job and at the end of it you start hearing another story. I don't think that's fair on anyone. If you don't want us in your country, don't accept us in your Army" - Kaedon White
Another case is that of Jamaican Kaedon White (pictured right). He left the Army in 2009 and after spending a year as a civilian worker, he was informed he had "no status" in the UK. He has been fighting deportation for 18 months. In that time he has been unable to work, claim benefits or see a doctor.
He told Channel 4 News: "I was totally confused because not only am I out of a job, I'm out of pocket, I've got three children to maintain and I didn't know how I was going to do that."
Again he was told that he had a conviction for two different disciplinary offences which occurred during service. He said: "For me as a young trooper in the Army, because my partner wasn't around...she was in Jamaica stranded where there was a hurricane at the time. I didn't report to work because I had my child to look after. Then I found out that I was posted AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and that's my charge.
"They even put theft on my record after finding kit that I'd been issued with at my house. However the civilian police thought that it was no crime and there was no further action. But the Army decided that I shouldn't have had that stuff at my house, so they charged me for it."
Disgusted with the way he has been treated Kaedon White called for the government to review the law. He said: "It's not even fair on soldiers, because stuff that you'll get charged for in the army, as a civilian it won't affect you and it won't be a criminal record. I think this law needs to be addressed.
He was recently given two years leave to remain, which he is thankful for, but he says he feels betrayed. He said: "They accept every nationality. You sign up to serve and protect your Queen and country. You do your job and at the end of it you start hearing another story. I don't think that's fair on anyone. If you don't want us in your country, don't accept us in your Army."
14 November 2010
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