On Friday the Government released new immigration rules for Ghurkha’s who served in the British Army prior to 1997. Previous regulations had been deemed unlawful by the High Court, but the new rules have proven equally controversial. Ghurkha veterans who retired before 1997 - more than 30,000 – will be allowed to settle in the UK only if certain conditions are met; 20 years of service and possession of an injury incurred in the line of duty, or been in receipt of a military award. Campaigners for the Ghurkha’s - who are arguing that these elderly servicemen should get the same rights as their Commonwealth counterparts - say these conditions limit the number of eligible ex-servicemen to only a few 100 men, of which most would be sergeants and officers, as rifleman are only permitted to serve for 15 years.
Ghurkha’s have been part of the British Army for almost 200 years, serving mainly infantry positions but also a significant number of specialist roles. They are one of the most decorated regiments, with 13 Victoria Crosses. At the peak of WWII, 112,000 Ghurka’s were serving in the British Army, with 43,000 giving their lives in the war. It is these veterans – and the thousands who have fought in the UK’s numerous conflicts between 1945 and 1997 - that these rule changes address. The 3,500 current members of the Ghurkha regiment, and the 200 new servicemen who join each year, are allowed to settle in the UK due to changes in legislation in 2004. Those serving (and retiring) since 1997 are granted residency, as well as a full military pension, provided they serve a minimum of 15 years. But many believe the government continues to neglect the ageing Ghurkha population who fought for the Allies in both World Wars; see here.
In light of the generous benefits given to individuals convicted of inciting terrorism against Britain, some feel these arrangements are an insult. Abu Qatada for instance, not only received £2,500 in compensation from the European Court of Human Rights - part funded by UK taxpayers - after he lost a legal battle in the House of Lords to stay in Britain, but it has been estimated that he and his family receive an estimated £50,000 a year in other taxpayer funded state benefits, including £150 a week in incapacity benefits, £499.62 a week in housing benefit and £240 a week in income support. Nor can these benefits be removed - despite the Lord’s ruling - as they are protected by a court order. But this is not an isolated case; welfare and other financial support for groups, families and individuals who explicitly condemn the British way of life is extensive, and immigration laws are criticised from all sides.
The Government is no doubt faced with a difficult decision, and it is understandably cautious about offering blanket ‘right’ to residency for all Ghurkhas, particularly at a time when budgets are tight. The Government estimates such a ruling could stretch to around 100,000 people, including dependents, and although this is probably a high estimate, the numbers (and their impact) may not be insignificant. Those Ghurkha’s seeking the right to settle are an ageing population, who may impose a burden on the NHS. The benefits system may also feel their arrival, as dependents fail to find employment in an ever shrinking job market. Moreover, Ghurkha’s have been recruited since Victorian times on the understanding that service with the British Army did not guarantee residency rights.
However while those who signed up to the Ghurkha regiment in the 1950s were aware of this, it is understandable that they now want the same rights as Commonwealth soldiers, who only have to serve a minimum of 4 years to guarantee residency rights. It is also misleading of the Government to suggest that every Ghurkha who retired prior to 1997 wishes to settle in the UK. With large extended families in Nepal, a strong culture and prominent roles in their community, most have happily resettled back there after retirement. Finally, despite the rise of 30% in the pensions awarded to Ghurkhas in 2007 - which makes retired Ghurkha’s as well off as a Nepalese member of Parliament - this again will only apply to those retiring after 1997, not the older ailing generation who need the support the most.
The UK has one of the most accessible and generous benefits systems in Europe. It is no wonder that thousands of people attempt to subvert UK immigration rules and border control in order to get here. If Britain were not so appealing, why would so many risks their lives each day in Calais; they, after all, already in one of the richest countries in the world. The British taxpayer would not be racist or unreasonable if they would rather see their money spent on those who have served the country, rather than on those who openly condemn the country that feeds and shelters them, or seek to come here with the intention of milking our system. Obviously there are thousands who struggle to get to Britain for legitimate reasons (fleeing conflict), but no-one can pretend that all those who try are doing so for these reasons.
If nothing else, if the Government were more willing to tighten up expenditure within the systems it controls, resources could be found to better support this group of universally admired soldiers. The TPA frequently highlights examples of government waste, and even MP’s abuse of the expenses system can be seen as a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources. If the Government got a proper handle of such things, it would not be having to make such unpleasant choices. With such a long loyalty to the UK, the government have a moral, if not legal obligation to support the elderly Ghurkhas. Maybe permanent UK residency is not the answer, but a proper acknowledgment of their service must be found. No-one should hold their breath though; the case is symptomatic of the Government’s general handling of all the armed forces, a group that will continue to be squeezed while society's attitude towards them remains mixed. Admittedly the Budget did announce an extra £50 million to improve and refurbish military accommodation, but this is two years after the Government promised to do so. Government is about making priorities, and this Government needs to stop being embarrassed about loudly and vocally supporting the UK’s armed forces, whatever country they may come from originally.