Debt of Honour
Britain’s shabby treatment of Iraqi interpreters shames our name
There are few traits more despicable to Arab culture than ingratitude. For years, the British had a reputation in much of the Middle East for fair play and for honouring their word. Yet it is hard to think of any episode more unfair or mean-spirited than the way that this country has treated those Iraqis who risked their lives, and often suffered ostracism, torture and death to work as interpreters for the British Army. British officials, at first deaf to their pleas for help, then shamed into agreeing to offer limited sanctuary, have treated those to whom our Armed Services owe so much with shabby disdain at every stage. And now that the first group of 18 have arrived in Britain, the insult has been compounded by sending them to litter-strewn flats in a tower block earmarked for demolition, a haunt for drunks and drug addicts (see pages 18-19).
The bitterness of the first arrivals is palpable. Marooned in an alien country, afraid to go out, the Iraqis are homesick, angry and shocked. They feel abandoned and ignored by a government that has been forced, grudgingly, to take them in and is now indifferent to their fate. The worst aspect of this sorry story is not the shaming comparison with other countries, such as Denmark and Australia, which have airlifted all those who worked for them in Iraq directly to their countries with no discrimination, stalling or bureaucracy. Nor is it the absurdity of insisting on asylum applicants having first to go to Jordan or some other third country to await, at their own considerable expense, the tardy arrival from London of an immigration interviewing team.
The worst aspect is the plain hypocrisy of Home Office officials. “Staff across government are working assiduously to ensure those staff eligible for assistance receive it as rapidly and effectively as practicable,” a spokesman said. This is plainly untrue, as our reports from Glasgow and Baghdad have shown. The Home Office appears to be treating these men as though they were part of the immigration “problem”, to be filtered, screened and, if possible, turned back. Let such jobsworths know what these brave Iraqis have endured for Britain’s sake. Abdul, a 71-year-old Iraqi, is the only man still alive of five interpreters who were photographed with Tony Blair in Basra in 2005. Last year his house was ransacked, money and car stolen and son kidnapped. His wife suffered the torture of hearing her son on the phone pleading for mercy and the sound of the four shots that killed him. Other families have suffered similar brutalities.
It is eight months since the Government set up a scheme with the United Nations refugee agency to take in those whose lives were in danger. So far, only three workers and their families have been relocated. If those now waiting needlessly in Jordan knew the conditions awaiting them here, they would probably not come.
Honouring obligations, however awkward or unpopular, should be a part of what was once an ethical foreign policy. Britain admitted thousands of Asians from Uganda when Idi Amin issued his summary expulsion order. They came with nothing but received fair treatment and a place to live. A generation later, many are wealthy, loyal, dynamic citizens who have more than repaid the charity shown them. Is Britain now too petty to offer the same swift sanctuary to these loyal Iraqis?