Eight Fiji-born soldiers who served with the British army in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone to the high court to try to overturn what they say were bureaucratic errors that have left them as illegal immigrants in the country they once served.
They include Remesio “Pat” Waqaliva, 42, who was suddenly discharged from the army in 2009 after nine years, 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, discovered subsequently that 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 up 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.”
The British army recruits actively from Fiji. Recruits from the Pacific nation currently number about 1,300, and they are often noted for their commitment and bravery.
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 as well as the fees involved.
Instead they have found themselves unable to resolve their immigration status. Some returned to their native country but a group has come together to seek a judicial review of the handling of their cases in a crowdfunded action.
Others in the group include Taitusi Ratucaucau, who is recovering from an operation to remove a brain tumour that could cost him £50,000 if he loses the case.
Waqaliva was discharged after he had 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 thought having served his penalty that would be the end of the matter.
But Waqaliva was surprised to discover he had been 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 were.
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.”
Waqaliva said he hoped the legal hearing, which begins on Tuesday, would help get his immigration status resolved. “I think the first thing is to get a visa. That would put everything to rest, the stress the worry.”
Ministers have allowed several hundred Afghan interpreters who worked with the British in Helmand province to relocate to the UK. The scheme initially let in 450 but was recently expanded to allow in a further 100 at risk of reprisals from the Taliban.
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.”