Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Sunday, 3 May 2009 00:27 UK

Iraqi interpreters 'still at risk'

By Caroline Hawley
BBC News

Iraqi interpreter and British soldier
Iraqi interpreters have worn masks to protect their identity

"My life is destroyed. I'm still living in hiding. I've asked to be taken anywhere in the world - away from here. There's no justice in the world."

The words of an Iraqi interpreter in Basra, speaking to the BBC, as British forces were in the process of pulling out of southern Iraq.

Ali (his name has been changed to protect him) had worked for British troops in Basra for almost 12 months. To be precise, for six days short of 12 months.

And the exact number of days is important because if he had been able to prove 12 months of continuous employment, he would have been eligible for resettlement in the UK under a special protection scheme set up in late 2007.

The scheme was introduced after the government came under pressure to fulfil its moral obligations to Iraqis who risked their lives while working with British troops.

The first group of interpreters and their families arrived in the UK in April 2008. A year on, at least 350 people have been resettled, according to the Home Office.

It says 550 more are either having their applications considered or have already been accepted and are waiting to come to the UK.

Among those already in Britain is 27-year old "Muhammad" who began working with British forces in the summer of 2003.

I thought I'd have a decent life here and I've been very, very disappointed
"Muhammad", former interpreter

"It was safe, at first," he told the BBC. "There was no problem with militias. But then in 2005 it became more and more dangerous.

"In February 2007, I got a text message saying that, if I didn't stop working for the British, I would be dead.

"British forces told me they couldn't protect me at home so I fled. Four months later, one of my colleagues was killed and two months after that another one was killed."

Asylum seeker

Muhammad heard about the protection scheme on the news, applied on the internet and was accepted in December 2007. He finally arrived in Britain in November 2008 and was resettled in Bolton.

"It's good to be safe, of course," he says. "But I thought I'd have a decent life here and I've been very, very disappointed.

"I wasn't happy with the council house they put us in and my qualifications in Iraq count for nothing. I worked for the British for three years and risked my life and I've been treated as any other asylum seeker."

The protection scheme itself has also been criticised for being too restrictive - and too late in coming.

"I was disappointed that it took so long to come up with the scheme and there are so many hurdles to get through," says Doug Young, of the British Armed Forces Federation.

I think it's a scandal - a dereliction of duty
Daniel Leader, lawyer

"To have an arbitrary requirement to have served 12 months is not right and should be removed. It's quite wrong to exclude those who served for lesser periods, but find themselves in danger."

Tom Porteous from Human Rights Watch agrees.

"We believe that the scheme should have been based on risk, because people who are at risk have fallen through the cracks," he says.

The government now insists it has done its duty over the former translators.

"The government has shown its clear determination to give refuge and support to Iraqi staff who served with British forces in uniquely difficult circumstances," said a Home Office spokesman.

But try telling that to the man who was shot in the chest in Basra in 2006, but who fell short of the requisite 12 months' employment.

"I think it's a scandal - a dereliction of duty," says Daniel Leader, from law firm Leigh Day, which has been representing former translators appealing to be let into the country.

"I interviewed many interpreters who had escaped to Syria. I sat with grown men, proud Iraqi men, who were weeping in front of me and severely traumatised from what they have lived through because of their work with the British army.

"The British scheme fails to consider many of the most deserving cases and they have been left to fend for themselves."

Family members

The overall security situation in Basra has improved dramatically over the past year, but there are fears that some former translators will remain marked men.


The British army in Afghanistan is using Afghan nationals in the same way
Alan Wheatley
Institute of Translation and Interpreting

Muhammad says one of his former colleagues - who had worked with a British unit specialising in arresting militiamen and suspected terrorists - returned to Basra last month and was detained by police.

"I am concerned now about at least 250 translators and their close family members," says Alan Wheatley, secretary general of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

"They've been on the front line and been exposed and have, for various reasons, not met the requirements to allow them into the UK."

And there are worries that Britain may face similar issues in Afghanistan.

"This is not just an Iraqi problem," says Mr Wheatley. "The British army in Afghanistan is using Afghan nationals in the same way as they were using Iraqi nationals.

"And I'm not aware that there is any improved plan to protect them."



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SEE ALSO
Iraq translators' mask ban dropped
06 Dec 08 |  Middle East
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