Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 17:02 UK

Commonwealth soldiers 'homeless'

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

Soldier in Afghanistan
There are over 7,600 Commonwealth citizens in the UK's armed forces

Commonwealth soldiers who are discharged from the British army are ending up homeless and unable to work or claim benefits, a charity has said.

Veterans Aid, which helps homeless servicemen, says dealing with the problem is taking up 20% of its time.

Home Office rules state they have to serve a minimum of four years before they earn the right to stay in the UK.

But the government says it waives those rules in special cases, if there are strong reasons such as injury.

Veteran "Jojo", 31 from Ghana, spent two years in the army air corps.

He was injured and then discharged in 2005, but because he had not served four years he was not allowed to work or claim benefits and became homeless.

He now lives in a hostel run by Veterans Aid.

'Indirect slavery'

Jojo said: "They treat you like a slave. You use us, and realise we are no use now and you chuck us out and don't think of us again. That's indirect slavery."

When asked whether he should have gone back to Ghana when he was discharged, he said: "I would love to have gone home - but you give up everything back home. You don't have a benefit system back there, you fend for yourself."

Veterans Aid chief executive Dr Hugh Milroy, said: "When they were serving they were exempt from the immigration laws, but on the day of discharge they're applied fully. It's a huge obstacle to overcome."

There are currently more than 7,600 Commonwealth citizens serving in the UK armed forces, but in 2000 there were fewer than 1,000.

Home Office rules say they must serve four years before gaining a right to stay in the UK and if they leave the military before that date, they must apply within 28 days.

These guys are part of the military family, we should be looking after them
Dr Hugh Milroy

Until a successful decision they cannot work or claim benefits and they may be removed from the country.

Mr Milroy says these cases are now taking up 20% of his charity's time.

"These guys are part of the military family, we should be looking after them."

He points out two obvious flaws in the system - in a bid to boost numbers the military may be picking some unsuitable recruits and when they are discharged early it is not geared up to deal with them.

The government, he acknowledges, is concerned about the situation, but is not yet sure how to deal with it.

'Little action'

Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter, Controller of the Army Benevolent Fund agrees.

He said: "The MOD is acutely aware of the problem and is in constant touch with the Home Office. One senses there's an awful lot of talk and not a lot of action."

He believes there should be an exemption for those men and dismisses the idea some may abuse the system and join the military just to get a passport.

"At a price, they have to go to Afghanistan and Iraq," he says.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Foreign and Commonwealth citizens have long made an extraordinary contribution to the British armed forces.

"To reflect that contribution we have complete flexibility to grant soldiers settlement earlier than four years, whenever there are strong reasons or a discharge through injury."

Jojo now has temporary leave to remain in the country and hopes to get out of the hostel soon, but he remains disillusioned.

He said: "Everybody who joins the army should straightaway get citizenship. You are living like animals, dying for the country, saving people in the country."


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