April 24, 2009 / 11:40 AM / 10 years ago

Britain accused of betraying its Gurkha soldiers

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Campaigners for former Gurkha soldiers seeking to retire in Britain have accused the government of treachery after the publication of immigration guidelines they said would bar most of them from settling.

The Home Office said on Friday new rules would give around 4,000 former members of the Nepalese unit that has fought for Britain since 1815 the right to settle, along with 6,000 dependents.

But campaigners said restrictions imposed by the government meant fewer than 100 Gurkhas would qualify.

“This is nothing less than an act of treachery and betrayal,” said solicitor Martin Howe of the Gurkha Justice Campaign.

David Enright, a solicitor representing the Gurkhas, said “this government ... should hang their head in shame so low that their forehead should touch their boots.”

The settlement issue for the hardy soldiers, who still go into battle with their famous curved Kukri knives, has been raging for years.

The Gurkhas say that if they were good enough to fight for Britain, they are good enough to be allowed to stay.

The government however fears some 100,000 former soldiers and their families would apply to settle in Britain if they removed all restrictions and that thousands of other colonial UK soldiers would soon join the queue of those applying to settle.

The rules apply to Gurkhas who left the army before 1997 and who do not share the same rights to settlement enjoyed by colleagues discharged after that date.

The government issued the revised immigration guidelines after a High Court judge ruled last October that existing policy was unlawful.

The new rules allow Gurkhas who retired before 1997 to settle in Britain if they meet one of five criteria, including having 20 or more years’ service, a gallantry medal or a long-term medical condition attributable to their service.

Actress Joanna Lumley, whose father served with Gurkha soldiers, said she was “ashamed” by the government.

She said the criteria would at most admit a few Gurkha officers, and would exclude thousands of ordinary soldiers, who were only allowed to serve 15 years.

Immigration Minster Phil Woolas said expectations had been raised too high and that the High Court had never said that all Gurkhas should be able to settle in Britain.

“We have complied with what the judge said and more, and it is simply not true to say that we have betrayed the Gurkhas,” he told BBC television.

He said the government could not give an automatic right to all Gurkhas as that would open Britain’s doors to hundreds of thousands of former Commonwealth soldiers.

“I don’t think people would want to grant settlement to potentially 100,000 people, let alone the precedent that would set other groups around the world, all of whom would rush to the courts with their claim for settlements.”

He said campaigners had miscalculated how many Gurkhas were eligible for settlement.

“It’s a lot more than 100 I can assure you,” he said. “I’ve got 1,200 or so on my desk waiting for these guidelines.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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