Eight Fijian-born soldiers who served with the British army in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed in a legal effort to overturn what they say were bureaucratic errors that have left them living illegally in the country they once served.
The group were refused leave for a judicial review of their cases by Mr Justice Garnham, who concluded the veterans had made their claim too late and that the courts were concerned with “illegality not misadministration” or an “unfocused idea of fairness”.
The claimants included Remesio “Pat” Waqaliva, 42, who was suddenly discharged from the army in 2009 after nine years’ service, including two tours of Iraq, and not advised that he had to immediately apply for the UK citizenship to which he was legally entitled.
Waqaliva, who was married and has four children, subsequently discovered he was unable to work and has had to rely on handouts to survive. Without an income, he says, he has been unable to save the £2,389 plus lawyer’s fees for a visa.
“I didn’t have any time to prepare myself,” Waqaliva said in his first interview. “I wasn’t told that my UK visa would expire when I left the army. Once I did realise, I just didn’t have the money. It’s not just the £2,000, it’s that I would have to hire a solicitor as well.”
Others in the group include Taitusi Ratucaucau, who is recovering from an operation to remove a brain tumour and is liable to pay about £50,000 now that the case had been lost, although he has had offers of financial help.
The British army actively recruits from Fiji, with personnel from the Pacific nation currently numbering about 1,300. Those who serve more than four years without serious blemish are entitled to live and work in the UK, but most of the veterans had assumed the process was automatic and have struggled with the paperwork and the fees involved.
Instead they have found themselves unable to resolve their immigration status. Some returned to Fiji but a group came together to seek a judicial review of the handling of their cases in a crowdfunded action.
Anthony Metzer QC, the lead lawyer for the claimants, said his clients were “bitterly disappointed” by the judgment, and that he hoped ministers would try to find “a reasonable and fair-minded solution for these veterans” in the light of what he said was “overwhelming support” from the public.
Ministers have allowed several hundred Afghan interpreters who worked with British troops in Helmand province to relocate to the UK, and have previously waived the fee requirement. The scheme initially let in 450 but was recently expanded to allow in a further 100 who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban.
Waqaliva was discharged 11 years ago after having nearly completed a short period at the army correction centre in Colchester because he had overstayed his leave. He said he had family problems, which he was trying to fix, and he thought, having served his penalty, that would be the end of the matter.
But he was told to leave the army with one week’s notice. Family friends said the only money he was given was for a train ticket from Colchester to Wales, where his family lived.
The veteran served with the 20th Armoured Brigade and undertook tours of Iraq in 2006, and again just before he was discharged. The first tour was particularly dangerous: “Every day you got out of the camp, you wouldn’t know if you would come back alive,” he said.
A government spokesperson said: “The Home Office and Ministry of Defence work closely with our foreign and Commonwealth recruits to make sure they are fully aware of how they and their families can settle in the UK, and the costs involved.”