Dear Secretary of State,
We are writing as a group of agencies concerned for the many thousands of people whose lives are, or have been, threatened by the crisis in Iraq. These include the many Iraqis who have worked as employees of the UK armed forces and civilian missions. We welcome the two statements that you made last month outlining the elements of the Government’s scheme to assist these staff, though we do have a number of questions and concerns which are set out later in this letter.
First, we would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to the wider aspects of the refugee and IDP crisis in the region. The potential beneficiaries of the employee scheme only make up a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of persecuted Iraqis currently in need of international protection. The UK’s performance to date on this has been very weak. We would urge you to work alongside your colleagues in the Home Office and the Department for International Development to push for a much more robust recognition of the UK’s obligations to all persecuted Iraqis, both as an active party in Iraq and as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The actions we would urge are the following:
- A substantial increase in financial assistance both through the UNHCR and other international agencies and direct to countries in the region, such as Syria and Jordan;
- Greater recognition of the protection needs of those few Iraqis who have reached the UK in recent years – currently, a very small percentage of Iraqi asylum-seekers are being granted refugee status or other forms of protection;
- A suspension of all removals to Iraq, including to the northern areas where instability has increased in recent months;
- The granting of some form of temporary status to all Iraqis in the UK so that they are not left in limbo with no access to support and no entitlement to work.
We believe the UK could, by adopting these measures, send a very positive signal to the international community, including to the countries in the region that are hosting the vast majority of Iraqi refugees, that it recognises the scale and urgency of the crisis and is prepared to take its share of the burden in providing desperately needed protection and support for the millions of affected people.
With regard to the employee assistance scheme, we have considered both of your statements carefully and we have the following questions about how your proposals will work in practice.
What is the basis for excluding Iraqis who worked less than 12 months for British entities? This appears to be an arbitrary stipulation, especially given that the standard employment cycle used by the British military is only six months. The principal criterion for acceptance on the scheme should be vulnerability. As it stands, the scheme will exclude large numbers of equally vulnerable people who may have worked for shorter periods, but who also have legitimate claims to international protection. This provision also fails to account for Iraqis whose period of service was divided between the British and the Americans or other international forces.
Why are Iraqis who worked for the British before January 2005 excluded? This cut-off date is similarly arbitrary and unfair. We have heard from Iraqis who have worked for international entities in Iraq before that date and who have still been targeted by armed groups as a consequence. These people are just as vulnerable as those whose employment was more recent.
Why are former employees who did not require a high level of English in their work excluded? The scheme only provides for former employees who served as ‘interpreters/translators or in similarly skilled or professional roles necessitating the regular use of written or spoken English’. This excludes the many thousands of former employees and contractors who are equally vulnerable but did not use high-level English as part of their work.
How will beneficiaries of the financial assistance package actually relocate in practice? Given the incredible danger that anyone moving in Iraq now faces, and with strict border controls now operating in all neighbouring countries as well as 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, it is practically impossible for vulnerable Iraqis to seek refuge in other parts of the country or the region. This has long been the position of the UNHCR, which has consistently argued that there is no realistic Internal Flight Alternative.
How in practice will applications for exceptional leave to enter the UK differ from applications to the Gateway resettlement programme? It is not clear from your statement of 30th October whether the application criteria for the former will be less strict than those for the latter. Similarly, it is not clear whether the reception and integration packages will differ. Without this information it will be difficult for would-be applicants to determine which scheme to apply for.
Why is the successful Gateway resettlement programme not being substantially expanded as a response to this crisis and other refugee situations?
Your statement of 30th October says that you are providing for up to 600 places on the Gateway resettlement scheme for Iraqi staff and dependents. We understand that this is 600 places over two years and that the overall target for resettlement is increasing from 500 to 750 places a year so as to accommodate the Iraqis. While any increase in Gateway numbers is to be welcomed, it is of concern that the number of resettlement places for Iraqis is so low, and that there are no plans to substantially increase the overall target for resettlement through Gateway.
What lessons has the British Government learned from other countries’ experience of resettling vulnerable Iraqis?
- Denmark has led the way in demonstrating how to protect its Iraqi employees, simply offering resettlement to them all, as well as their families.
- The US has also been much more active than the UK in providing emergency support to its Iraqi employees; as of 1st October it had resettled 823 employees and family members. However, US officials have faced significant operational challenges, especially around logistics and security, which the UK could usefully learn from.
We would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further with you.
Human Rights Watch
Letter also cc-ed to the following:
- The Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP, Secretary of State for the Home Department
- The Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP, Secretary of State for International Department
- The Rt Hon Des Browne MP, Secretary of State for Defence