On Saturday I had a bit of a desperate but perhaps hopeful conversation with two Iraqi interpreters currently exiled in Damscus, Syria. The UNHCR estimates there are around 220,000 Iraqi refugees currently living in that country.
Their plight was evident in their words and in the tone of the conversation. “We’re lost, we have nothing left to work with. We don’t know what to do next,” Bader said, “We can’t trust anyone anymore.“
Bader and Waleed worked as interpreters with the British Army in Basra as part of the Multinational Force in Iraq. The UK’s rejection of them is not a new story but that doesn’t help them very much in their current situation.
Bader, who is single, worked with the British King’s Own Royal Border Regiment for 10 months and then with the Americans for a further eight months. Waleed, who is married and has children, worked with various British battalions for seven and a-half months from October 2006 until June 2007.
They say there were five interpreters working in their battle group and estimate that on average there were around 24 interpreters working alongside them at any one time in their logistics base for the British, and perhaps 100 interpreters in total working in their area. They say it’s difficult to be completely accurate with those figures because “we were always out on patrols“.
Stuck in Damascus and with rejected asylum applications from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, despite being certified, card-carrying UNHCR refugees and former British Army interpreters, they feel they have nowhere to go: they cannot go back to Basra because the militias are still after them and they are not allowed to move to the UK.
After working for the British, Bader spent two years living in Moscow. He travelled back to Basra in January this year to try and start his life over again, believing that things were by then safer. The militias hunted him down and, when they couldn’t find him, detained and jailed his father. When they did catch up with him, they shot him so he fled to Damascus. “The militias still control everything,” he says.
They have contact with their families in Basra, who tell them the militias are still after them but they say they cannot go back now. The UN tells them they should go back to Iraq. The Syrians don’t want much to do with them because they’re ex-MNF interpreters. The UK and US embassy security guards in Damascus refuse them entry, they say, even when they show them all of their papers.
“The British Army was very cool with us, treated us very well,” says Bader, “The British government is the problem.“
An officer from the 9th/12th Lancers in April 2006, for example, commended Waleed for his work in a letter:
Throughout his time he has been employed as one of the Battle Group’s interpreters. He has performed his duties to my complete satisfaction and has been an invaluable asset at a number of meetings. Waleed is honest and reliable. (…) He is trustworthy and has given good advice on cultural matters.
Brigadier James Everard, Commander 20 Armoured Brigade, wrote an open letter to local Iraqi staff employed to help his brigade in Basra, noting that:
I am fully aware that your association with the MNF is dangerous. The immense contribution which you are making towards a safe and secure environment within Iraq is not always recognised by members of your own community. Your bravery is an example to others. You have my utmost respect and admiration for continuing to work in these difficult circumstances.
The BBC reckons that almost 700 Iraqis who worked with the British in our war in their country have been refused entry into the UK for one reason or another. Questions have been asked in Parliament. Reading around, though, it seems the most common excuse the UK government puts forward is that ‘they weren’t working long enough for the UK‘. The government set an arbitrary 12-month limit.
Would allowing 700 people who risked their lives and the lives of their families in very dangerous circumstances on our behalf – regardless of whether or not you agree with the war – really make that much of a difference to Gordon Brown and David Miliband?
Aren’t these precisely the sort of people who we should be be enormously proud of and willing to accept into our country and society?
Bader and Waleed have sent me the details of some people they worked with, so I’ll try and contact them and blog about what they say, too but, for the moment: what do you think they should try and do next? Can we do anything to help them?