A Commonwealth soldier who served for 13 years in the Army has been refused British citizenship.'Natural leader’: Bale Baleiwai with his children Photo: Geoff PughBy Andrew Gilligan7:50AM BST 22 Jul 2012
Lance Corporal Bale Baleiwai has spent his whole adult life in the British Army. He has a glowing service record, a row of medals and a starring role in Army recruitment advertising.
His reward is a deportation notice. After 13 years fighting for Britain, it has given him three weeks to leave the country. “When I had the uniform on, I was a British soldier,”
he says.“Now I have taken it off, I’m just a problem they want to get rid of.”
L/Cpl Baleiwai was British enough for two tours in Iraq, dodging the bullets on escort duty. He was British enough to patrol Belfast and Bosnia.
In Afghanistan, he was British enough to spend seven months as a gunner in a brigade recce force, under daily Taliban fire that killed three of his comrades.
But a few weeks ago, after leaving the Army, Bale Baleiwai found that he is not British enough to work as a railway track repairer, or a fibre-optic technician, or any of the other jobs he has been offered.
He was British enough to pay thousands in tax and National Insurance, but he is not British enough to claim benefits.
Now L/Cpl Balewai, his British wife Kim and their two British children are surviving on their savings as they fight deportation.
They are the latest victims of a scandal revealed by The Sunday Telegraph: the growing number of Commonwealth soldiers recruited, then discarded, by Britain.
Denied the right to work or welfare, they leave the Army and face ending up destitute. “They are non-people. They’re dispossessed,”
says Hugh Milroy, the chief executive of Veterans Aid, the charity that helps them.“Despite all the political rhetoric about veterans, the reality is they are treated worse than anyone else. This is one of the most shocking cases I’ve ever seen, and I’m ashamed we’re letting these people down.”
Early in the last decade, desperate for manpower, the Army made strenuous efforts to recruit foreign and Commonwealth citizens, notably Fijians and Caribbeans.
About 7,000, eight per cent of the Army’s total strength, currently serve. They are British soldiers just like the others, and after four years they are promised British citizenship.
But Bale Baleiwai, a Fijian, is one of a growing number of soldiers prevented from exercising that promise on what appear to be the flimsiest of grounds.
Wanting to see more of his family, traumatised by his Afghan service — “in the supermarket, a kid dropped a tin, and I was underneath the nearest trolley”
— he decided to sign off.
A skilled mechanic, he had plenty of takers for his services in civilian life. There was even an offer from a Zambian copper mine. “We thought we were going to have the life, didn’t we?”
remembers Mrs Baleiwai. “We were excited.”
Unknown to her husband, something he had rightly thought trivial was about to become, for him, a catastrophe. In September 2010, another soldier picked a fight. He fought back. It lasted about a minute.
Two days later, he was told he had broken the man’s jaw and sent to his commanding officer for summary punishment.“I was gutted,”
he says. “I was disappointed with myself for what I thought I’d done. I thought I’d just take whatever was coming.”
The hearing lasted 10 minutes. Conditioned to obey his commanding officer, he did not ask for legal advice, or even try to see the evidence.
If he had, he would have found that he did not break anyone’s jaw and that five witnesses said he had acted in self-defence. None of them was called to give evidence; he was convicted and fined.“I thought it was just an internal thing,”
he said. It normally would have been.
But for the UK Border Agency, when it came to assess Baleiwai’s application for citizenship, the Army’s summary justice counted the same as a criminal conviction in court.
And that alone was enough to deny him the chance to be British. In a brief letter three weeks ago, it said that his application had been refused on grounds of good character, and that he should leave by August 9 — for a country he had not lived in since he was a child.
In vain the couple produced other testimonies to his character. “He has immense pot-ential,”
wrote the same CO who fined him, in his annual appraisal.“He is a natural leader, trusted and thought very highly of. He gains my strongest recommendation for promotion.”
The report, the five operational tours, the four medals: none of it mattered because, since last year, the Border Agency has been obeying new rules.
As the MoD admits, it “previously had the ability to exercise discretion”
. Now, refusal is “automatic”
.“I felt betrayed,”
says L/Cpl Baleiwai. “I gave 13 years to this country. I swore the same oath to the Queen. It was a kick in the face.”“I just felt scared,”
says his wife. “We’ve got no money. When I married Bale, I married a British soldier. I’ve got mixed-race kids. I don’t want them growing up in a country where there is this sort of behaviour.”
The regiment, they say, does not want to know. The British Legion would not help because L/Cpl Baleiwai is not British. The MoD said it was not its problem.
Solicitors asked for £250 an hour. Not many people replied to their letters. Veterans Aid did. This small charity, based above a hairdresser’s shop in central London, calls itself “the A&E of the veterans’ world”
It has already helped 100 Commonwealth ex-soldiers who have nowhere else to turn and no other means of support, and now sees five to six more every week. It is funding or supporting 15 of them and their families.
Some are caught out like L/Cpl Baleiwai, others by another new rule they have no idea about — that they must apply for citizenship within a month of leaving the military.“They get a stamp in their passport saying they don’t need leave to remain,”
says Mr Milroy. “They think they’re covered, but they don’t realise it only applies until they go out of the Forces. The Army says it tells them, but it doesn’t. They sometimes end up on the streets.”
Other soldiers do apply, but fill in the form wrongly. By the second time they send it, they have missed the deadline, and the bureaucrats are difficult to move.“Each department is following its own rules, completely unconscious of the effect they have together,”
says Mr Milroy. “It’s a system failure and it’s an iniquitous system.”
Because of their military service, soldiers might expect special treatment. But actually, with so many more offences to fall foul of and far lower standards of proof, they get treated worse than anyone else.
In the same week that the Baleiwais got their deportation letter, another would-be Briton won his appeal against deportation.
But while Bale Baleiwai had been fighting the Taliban, this man was the Taliban: Zareen Ahmadzai, who took part, by his own account, in “a lot”
of battles, sometimes “two or three a night, as well as daylight fighting”
What a surprising country this is, where the man who fought for Britain gets thrown out and the man who fought against us is allowed to stay.