Britain to resettle its Iraqi interpreters
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Oct 11 00:31:30 UTC 2007
from the October 11, 2007 edition -
Britain to resettle its Iraqi interpreters
As troops withdraw from Iraq, Britain on Tuesday promised resettlement aid
By Mark Rice-Oxley | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
It was a simple text message. "Quit your job or be killed." Loay Mohammed
Al-Tahar had known he was working in a dangerous job, interpreting for
British military special units that were arresting and interrogating
militias in Basra. But he didn't realize just how dangerous. Until then.
"I took it seriously because they'd already killed three guys I knew," he
says. They were among the scores of Iraqis murdered since 2003 who had
worked for multinational forces in Iraq. "I decided to resign." He fled to
Syria, where he sought help from the British Embassy. No help. He and two
other interpreters petitioned Downing Street. There was no immediate
But with the help of Army officers, rights groups, and a series of
front-page articles in The Times newspaper, the campaign snowballed to
such an extent that Britain on Tuesday finally agreed to grant
"resettlement allowances" and, in certain cases, asylum. The critical
decision comes as Britain's presence in southern Iraq is being wound down,
with around 100 interpreters likely to be left behind by next year. It
follows a precedent set by Denmark in August, when it granted asylum to 60
Iraqi staff and their families, and airlifted them out of Iraq before
pulling the last of its force from the country.
"I heard the news on TV," says Mr. Tahar, speaking by telephone from
Syria. "It's a great decision. I think it's going to help me because I
have been in considerable danger, especially after the work I have done
with the special forces." 'Moral obligation' The interpreters have
consistently argued that they should be treated separately from other
workers who have helped multinational forces. Tahar describes why. He says
that during special detention operations in Basra through 2005 and 2006,
he was repeatedly present when some particularly nefarious characters were
being detained and interrogated. A black balaclava masked his identity,
but on one occasion a suspect told him that if he found out who he was he
would kill him.
Rights groups say that the least the occupying powers can do is protect
those who have provided invaluable service but are now considered
traitorous "collaborators" by murderous elements in Iraq.
Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, said governments were
"morally obliged to help get these people to safety." "They have put their
lives on the line for the sake of the [United Kingdom's] effort in Iraq,
and the UK has up until now refused to acknowledge that it has a
responsibility towards them."
Mr. Porteous and others who have closely followed the case say there are
still loopholes in the British government's offer. They note that there
are two strands to the settlement: a one-off package of financial
assistance of up to 12 months' salary to help relocate staff "in Iraq or
the region"; or alternatively the chance to apply for asylum. Details on
how to apply will be made public later this month.
"There are some practical issues that have not been clearly spelled out,"
says Porteous, noting that many former interpreters have, like Tahar, fled
to neighboring Syria where they have been refused consular access.
As Tahar himself puts it: "I don't know if I will have to go to Lebanon or
to Amman or if I will have to go back to Basra air station and stay there
until they lift me up." He adds that resettlement in the region is a not
an option. "If I resettle in another neighboring country, it will be very
easy for them [militants] to find me and I will be dead."
Resettlement more likely than asylum
The Times newspaper, which has spearheaded the asylum campaign, says the
outcome is heavily loaded in favor of resettling Iraqis in the region
rather than offering asylum. Senior international affairs editor Richard
Beeston says the Home Office was strongly opposed to allowing "hundreds,
possibly thousands of ex-Iraqi employees and their families to settle in
"They fear a precedent will be set that could allow refugees from around
the world's trouble spots to claim the same rights," he says, while adding
that there was still some cause for celebration. "Several hundred Iraqis,
who a few weeks ago faced a very bleak future as the British withdraw, can
now look forward to some compensation for their loyal service.
Refugee groups argue that a few dozen interpreters are just a drop in the
ocean of refugees that have spilled westward from Iraq into Syria and
Jordan. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has been urging
countries like Britain to increase the numbers of refugees that it takes
UN figures show that half of all Iraqi asylum applications in the first
half of the year 9,300 were registered in Sweden. Britain by contrast
fielded 580 applications. The majority of asylum requests in Britain are
being turned down, official figures show, and some asylum seekers are
being returned to Iraq. The US originally said it would resettle 7,000
Iraqis this year, but that number has since been reduced to 2,000, with
processing times of up to 10 months.
Those numbers vanish alongside the enormity of the Iraq refugee crisis.
More than 2 million are estimated to have fled the country, and another 2
million are internally displaced within Iraq itself. Most of those who
have left the country languish in limbo in neighboring countries. Around
1.4 million are in Syria and 750,000 in Jordan.
"Syria and Jordan are carrying a hugely disproportionate burden, and
that's not being recognised," says Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman.
"Clearly much more has to be done to share responsibility for Iraqis who
are fleeing the country and to support the Syrian and Jordanian
Sherif Elsayed-ali, the head of Amnesty International's refugee and
migrant rights team, adds that Western governments, "especially the ones
that took part in the US-led invasion, have specific responsibility to do
more to resettle more refugees." Porteous notes that apart from the moral
obligation, the large contingent of refugees presents the threat of
greater instability and radicalization in the region.
Tahar meanwhile faces the prospect of trying to make his money last a few
more weeks while he waits for details of how to apply for asylum. "I've
been here for seven months; I can hold on for a few more weeks," he says.
But what of the future beyond that and his prospects for acclimatizing to
British life and weather?
This reporter tells him it's been raining for days. "I like rain," he
says. "It's very hot here."
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