Britain to resettle its Iraqi interpreters

As troops withdraw from Iraq, Britain on Tuesday promised resettlement aid to employees.

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 response.

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 Britain."

"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 from Iraq.

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 governments."

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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