Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Monday, 15 September 2008 00:40 UK

Gurkhas fight on for equal rights

By Alison Smith
BBC News

Gurkha veteran Madan Gurung talks about his fight to stay in the UK

Five retired Gurkhas and the widow of another veteran are fighting a legal battle for the right to remain in Britain - the country they fought for, and say they love.

The test case has taken nearly two years to come to court.

Madan Gurung, 54, a Gurkha who served with the British Army for 24 years until he retired in 1993, is hoping he will now finally be able to put down roots in the UK.

At the moment he is staying with friends and well-wishers.

But he stresses he is not ill, does not want to settle here for benefits or free medical treatment, and wants to work.

"If I'd been given the right to stay here I'd be happy to serve the Crown again," he says.

"We are hardworking people."

Pension rights

The Gurkhas' main base moved from Hong Kong to the UK in 1997.

The Home Office says the automatic right to settle in Britain is normally linked to an extended period of residence in this country or a close family tie.

So Gurkhas who retired before 1997 would not normally qualify, though they can apply for discretionary settlement where there is a strong reason, it says.

Last year, the government agreed that Gurkhas who retired after this date could remain in the country and would receive a pension on the same terms as the rest of the British Army.

But retired Gurkhas like Mr Gurung, who left the service in 1993, are not covered by the arrangement.

He first applied to live in Britain in 2006 but was turned down.

He came to the UK to reapply, and has been unable to work while he waits for a decision.

Back in Nepal there are elderly Gurkhas in need of medical treatment hard to come by in their country.

Campaigners say they can only assume the government is worried about a drain on resources.

But the 30 or 40 who took a petition to Downing Street ahead of the High Court hearing believe the British public back them in their struggle for equal rights.

Gurkhas' wives
Gurkhas' wives wore traditional dress for the protest outside Parliament

Gurkhas are hand picked from a fiercely contested recruitment contest in Nepal to win the right to fight for Britain.

Known for their bravery, their close camaraderie and endurance, they have seen combat all over the world, with 200,000 fighting in the two World Wars.

In March, Mr Gurung and others handed back their long-service medals in protest at the way the government has treated them.

Now all he has left is his Gurkha's hat.

Tough times

Some Gurkhas have found it difficult to settle back in Nepal, says Chandra Bahadur Budhathoti, 54.

Gurkhas justice banner
The government says it has tried to be fair to all former servicemen

He retired in 1985 but said it was difficult to survive amidst the political and economic instability in Nepal.

Consequently, he moved to the Middle East to work in security and management in Kuwait.

But he wants to settle in Britain and thinks his contribution to this country should be enough.

The Gurkhas' solicitor, Martin Howe, says the case has dragged on for so long that seven or eight Gurkhas who applied for entry into the UK have already died.

"We need this case to be settled quickly," he said.

"Some of the men I represent are in their 70s and 80s and in desperate need of medical care."

He represents around 1,500 men who wish to come to the UK, but says the government is fighting "tooth and nail" to keep them out.

He sees it as a clear-cut case of discrimination, as the Gurkhas have not been treated equally, compared to other foreign soldiers.

The Home Office says it has tried to be as fair as possible to all ex-servicemen, including Gurkhas. The have the full right of appeal and can stay in Britain while their case is pending.

Mr Gurung says he is happy to finally get his case heard in court.

"I think the government is scared," he says. "But I feel very upset after having served for so many years and given my life."

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