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Britain’s Commonwealth-born military veterans must have the right to work in the UK and free access to the NHS

Soldiers from the 1 Rifles Fijian choir sing during a memorial service in honour of eight fallen comrades, Bristol Cathdral, 2009 | Alamy

4 min read

On 23 June 1944, the men of the 3rd Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment were sent on a daring raid deep into enemy territory as part of the Bougainville campaign in the South Pacific.

During the battle – having already recovered two fallen comrades – Cpl Sefanaia Sukanaivalu volunteered to go alone through heavy fire to save another, and was seriously wounded.

On realising his men would not withdraw while he was still alive, Sukanaivalu raised himself up in front of a Japanese machine gun and sacrificed his life. For this act of immeasurable selflessness, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross; the first Fijian recipient.

Exceptional though it is, his story is only one example of the sacrifices made – and that continue to be made – by men and women from the Commonwealth and Nepal who serve with us. Despite their sacrifice, they face a shameful choice if they wish to make a home in the country for which they risked their lives: pay thousands of pounds in Home Office costs or pack their bags.

Under current rules, non-UK members of our armed forces are exempt from immigration controls during their service. On discharge – and if they’ve completed four years – they can apply for settlement, but at an eye-watering cost of £2,389.

That means a service leaver with a partner and two children would be landed with a bill just shy of £10,000 when they’re transitioning to civilian life. Without regularising their immigration status, veterans cannot legally live or work in the UK, or access free NHS treatment.

The initial exemptions do not extend to spouses and children, who are required to pay for visas. Moreover, service personnel must meet an income threshold should they wish to live with their families, the result of which means they wait many years to bring their children over, and are sometimes forced to choose which ones to leave behind.

Veterans who have fallen foul of the rules have argued the procedures weren’t explained and believed their right to stay in the UK would be awarded automatically on account of their service. This issue gained media attention following the unsuccessful attempts of eight Fijian British army veterans to bring legal action against the government.

One of the claimants, Taitusi Ratucaucau – a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns – was handed a £30,000 bill following an emergency operation to remove a brain tumour after he was deemed ineligible for free healthcare. It was left to the crowdfunding efforts of the British public to cover the costs. A story I simply did not believe when I first read it.

The only proposal is to offer a visa fee waiver after 12 years’ service – an unduly high threshold that will alleviate costs for a fraction of service personnel

Make no mistake, this is a scandal; one the government has known about for years. In 2013, Filimone Lacanivalu, a veteran of Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan, was given an 11th-hour reprieve after spending weeks in a detention centre awaiting deportation to Fiji.

The government finally responded by launching a public consultation in May 2021. Regrettably, it is virtually pointless. The only proposal is to offer a visa fee waiver after 12 years’ service – an unduly high threshold that will alleviate costs for a fraction of service personnel. Disappointingly, families and veterans have been thrown under the bus.

Only meaningful reform will deliver justice. That means introducing a free and equitable route to citizenship that incorporates families and – as we have no clue how many have been affected – establishing a dedicated unit to assist veterans, similar to the Windrush taskforce.

No matter where you come from or what your background, once you choose to put on a uniform and protect our country, you have made a life-changing commitment. It should shame us all that our people are being treated with such little dignity and respect. 

Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central, mayor of Sheffield City Region, and a former British army major

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