Government lawyers have rejected a claim brought by eight Commonwealth army veterans, dismissing their allegations that, on discharge, officials failed to assist them with complex, unaffordable immigration rules, leaving them classified as illegal immigrants.
The soldiers, all of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent between seven and 12 years in the British military, say they have been left feeling betrayed by the country they served, and face unemployment, homelessness and fear deportation.
Their lawyers believe hundreds more former soldiers are similarly affected.
One of the claimants, Taitusi Ratacaucau, 49, has been told he must pay more than £27,000 for NHS hospital bills after an emergency operation to remove a brain tumour.
Hospital staff have classified him as an overseas patient, and therefore ineligible for free NHS care. He joined the British army in 2001 and has been continuously in the UK since being discharged from the military in 2011, living there with his wife and three daughters and paying tax and national insurance.
Ratacaucau said: “I never in a million years thought that the country I so proudly sacrificed my life for, almost died for, would turn around and leave one of its soldiers behind. I feel so betrayed.” He said he and his family and his “veteran brothers are asking the government to do the right thing”.
Anthony Metzer, QC, who is representing the group, said his clients were “deeply disappointed, though not wholly surprised, at what they consider to be a dismissive, arrogant and detached response.
“In the circumstances, they have been left no recourse other than to proceed with their judicial review claim, which they had hoped might have been avoided if a sympathetic and understanding approach had been adopted,” he said.
Ministry of Defence rules state that Commonwealth-born service personnel are eligible for indefinite leave to remain in the UK after discharge if they have served four years. But the claimants say the army failed to tell them that, on discharge, they needed to make an immediate application to the Home Office for leave to remain in the UK, despite a clear MoD requirement that the process should be explained to all non-British veterans before they left.
Most assumed that after four years of service the immigration process was automatic; the Home Office stamped their passports on joining the military with a note stating they were exempt from immigration restrictions, and that they were “not subject to any condition or limitation on the period of permitted stay in the UK”. The stamps were not marked with an expiry date but nevertheless became invalid on discharge. Veterans say they were not informed.
With the introduction of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy after 2012 they discovered they were in breach of immigration rules. However, as Home Office visa application fees had risen sharply, from £1,051 in 2015 to the current fee of £2,389, they struggled to change their situation. The fees meant a service leaver and their partner, with two children, would have to pay nearly £10,000 to stay in the UK, an unaffordable sum for most on army pensions.
Vinita Templeton, lawyer for the group who, like colleagues, has been working on the case on a pro-bono basis for more than a year, said the government’s treatment of her clients had caused them “unimaginable suffering”. She said she and colleagues planned to proceed with legal action.
James Sunderland, a Conservative MP and former colonel who served with Ratacaucau in the Royal Logistic Corp in Germany, said he had been in touch with the legal team on Wednesday and would be following developments.
“I don’t want to prejudice the legal process but my enduring view is that the British government could be doing more. We are all veterans together. If you are recruited, you wear the uniform and you serve the country. There should be no division in how you are treated as a veteran.”
Support has poured in for Ratacaucau. Dr Hugh Milroy, the chief executive of Veterans Aid, said the organisation had long believed foreign and Commonwealth veterans had been treated unjustly.
“Common humanity and natural justice suggest that there is something very wrong when a man who has served honourably in the British army for a decade is faced with a bill for medical treatment from the country for which he risked his life,” he said.
Dan Jarvis, a former paratrooper, who is mayor of the Sheffield City Region, said the MoD should work with the Home Office to cancel Ratacaucau’s debts and ensure Commonwealth veterans have the right to work in the UK and have free access to the NHS.
“He risked his life while serving this country. No one who put their life on the line for us should be treated in this manner.”
Emma Norton, director of the Centre for Military Justice, a legal specialist, said Ratucaucau’s case exposed contradictions in the treatment of veterans.
“The government is keen to draw attention to its apparent support for the wider veteran community – apparently that only goes so far where it clashes with its hostile agenda towards migrant people.”
The Ministry of Defence has been contacted for comment.