Gurkha residency UK in a fix
The British people are sympathetic to the Gurkha issue but Prime Minister Gordon Brown has failed to gauge the public mood
SOPHIA FURBER LONDON
A CAMPAIGN TO secure UK residency rights for ex- Gurkhas has seen an unprecedented wave of support from the British public, who have been outraged at a recent attempt by the Home Office to tighten the entry requirements for former Nepali soldiers.
Under the revised requirements, Gurkhas who served with the British Army will be allowed to settle permanently in the UK if they have served for 20 years, have received certain awards for bravery, suffer from a medical condition that was caused or aggravated by serving with the army, or have resided lawfully in the UK for three or more years. Previous legislation 'did not adequately reflect factors relating to length and quality of service in the Brigade'.
Critics of the ruling, which was due to come into effect on April 24, have claimed that it is virtually impossible for ex-Gurkhas to meet the new requirements. Immigration minister, Phil Woolas, claimed that the change in legislation would enable 4,300 more Gurkhas to settle in the UK out of a total of 36,000, who served with the British armed forces before 1997. However, immigration lawyers representing the Gurkhas believe that as few as 100 will meet the new criteria for residency. Around 1,500 ex-Gurkhas are in the process of applying for the right to remain in the UK.
British actress, Joanna Lumley, whose father served in a Gurkha regiment, has spearheaded the 'Gurkha Justice' campaign, which calls for the right for ex-Gurkhas and their families to settle in the UK, if they choose to do so. The campaign has amassed huge public support. Even Rightwing tabloids such as The Sun and The Daily Mail, which typically have a strong anti-immigration bias, have championed the Gurkha cause. Lumley clashed publicly with Woolas outside the BBC's Westminster offices at the beginning of May in an unscheduled meeting, in which she called on the government to act decisively to reverse the ruling. The meeting quickly turned into an unscheduled press conference, drawing crowds outside the BBC offices. BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, commented that he had rarely witnessed scenes of this kind in his career.
The Gurkha campaign has made front-page news in April and May this year. Media coverage of the Gurkha issue in the UK has far outstripped that of the political crisis in Nepal following Prachanda's walkout. Downing Street claims that a new set of guidelines on Gurkha residency will be released in early July this year.
The question of Gurkha settlement rights has now turned into a major political flashpoint for Gordon Brown's beleaguered Labour Party. Brown suffered a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons on April 29, when a motion proposed by the Liberal Democrats for equal residency rights for Gurkhas was backed by 267 votes (to 264 against). The prime minister could not have misread the public mood more when he ordered tightening of residency criteria. Many Britons who served in the armed forces feel a strong emotional connect and gratitude to the Gurkhas. They are outraged that their former Nepali colleagues have been denied the right to settle in the country they have fought for.
Brown's popularity has declined rapidly over the course of 2009, and the Labour Party's approval rating dropped to 20 per cent in mid-May, its lowest-ever score. The Gurkha imbroglio, combined with a scandal over MPs falsely claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money for expenses have done much to damage Brown's reputation.
The Gurkha controversy was just one in a line of embarrassments for the prime minister at the beginning of May, which was dubbed "Brown's nightmare week" by the UK press. In a highly publicised move, Pakistan President, Asif Ali Zardari, pulled out of a press conference with Brown, allegedly to show his distaste for UK anti-terrorism policies. Eleven Pakistani nationals, who were studying in the UK, had been detained at length on terrorism charges in April. Later, they were found to be innocent and released.
The residency issue demonstrates not only the depth of feeling that the British have for Nepal's Gurkhas, but also shows, perhaps more acutely than any other political clash this year, how dangerously the prime minister is out of touch with the public mood.
However, to salvage the situation, there was a surprise statement by home secretary, Jacqui Smith, that all Gurkhas who completed their service before 1997 will be given the right to settle in the UK. Gordon Brown later claimed during a press conference that he had wanted the Gurkhas to remain in the UK all along. "There has been an injustice in my view and I'm pleased it has been put right. I'm sorry it didn't happen earlier," he told journalists. The move is an unprecedented U-turn for Prime Minister Brown, whose credibility has been seriously damaged by the Gurkha residency issue.