UK says no blanket asylum for Iraqi translators

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will not grant automatic asylum to dozens of Iraqis who work for British forces in Iraq, the government said on Tuesday, despite fears that they face persecution or even death once the troops pull out.

Around 90 Iraqi interpreters work alongside the 5,000-strong British contingent in southern Iraq, accompanying troops on raids and patrols. They frequently disguise their faces because they fear retribution if they are identified by locals.

Several of the interpreters have written to the army asking for special asylum consideration for themselves and their families, arguing that the threat of persecution will be all the greater once British troops pull out, possibly next year.

But the government departments dealing with the Iraqis say they will not automatically give anyone asylum in Britain.

“There isn’t a blanket process of approval,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.

Several translators working for the British in Basra have already been kidnapped and killed by insurgents or militias, who regard them as collaborators with foreign forces. Some have been tortured before being killed and their bodies dumped.

But Britain’s interior ministry, which deals with asylum cases, said it was not in a position to grant a blanket asylum to the Iraqis despite the “essential work” they do.

And the Ministry of Defense, which with the Foreign Office is also responsible for the employees, underlined the need for Iraqi translators to apply for asylum individually.

A Defense spokeswoman said that Britain valued the work of the translators highly and took its responsibilities towards them seriously, but added:

“We consider any specific requests for assistance from serving or ex-employees on their individual merits. Should an individual seek to come to the UK, they would need to apply for entry clearance in the usual way.”

Pressure has been building on Britain to grant asylum to its Iraqi employees -- and essentially take them with them when they leave -- since Denmark airlifted 200 Iraqi translators and their relatives to Denmark ahead of a troop pullout last month.

The United States has also indicated that it will grant asylum or refugee status to many of the Iraqis that work as translators and assistants on its military bases in Iraq.

The Times newspaper ran a front-page story on Tuesday featuring a letter from the prime minister’s office indicating there would be no automatic asylum for interpreters under the headline: “Abandoned - The 91 Iraqis Who Risked All”.

A spokeswoman at the Home Office (interior ministry), said: “The UK government is committed to providing protection for those individuals found to be genuinely in need, in accordance with our commitments under international law.

“All applications for asylum are carefully considered by trained caseworkers taking into account all the circumstances of an application.”