Lance Corporal Bale Baleiwai has spent his whole adult life in the British Army. He has a glowing service record, a row of medals and a starring role in Army recruitment advertising. His reward is a deportation notice. After 13 years fighting for Britain, it has given him three weeks to leave the country.
UK Telegraph (H/T Tomaz) “When I had the uniform on, I was a British soldier,” he says. “Now I have taken it off, I’m just a problem they want to get rid of.”
L/Cpl Baleiwai was British enough for two tours in Iraq, dodging the bullets on escort duty. He was British enough to patrol Belfast and Bosnia. In Afghanistan, he was British enough to spend seven months as a gunner in a brigade recce force, under daily Taliban fire that killed three of his comrades.
But a few weeks ago, after leaving the Army, Bale Baleiwai found that he is not British enough to work as a railway track repairer, or a fibre-optic technician, or any of the other jobs he has been offered. He was British enough to pay thousands in tax and National Insurance, but he is not British enough to claim benefits.
Now L/Cpl Balewai, his British wife Kim and their two British children are surviving on their savings as they fight deportation.
They are the latest victims of a scandal revealed by The Sunday Telegraph: the growing number of Commonwealth soldiers recruited, then discarded, by Britain.
Denied the right to work or welfare, they leave the Army and face ending up destitute. “They are non-people. They’re dispossessed,” says Hugh Milroy, the chief executive of Veterans Aid, the charity that helps them.
“Despite all the political rhetoric about veterans, the reality is they are treated worse than anyone else. This is one of the most shocking cases I’ve ever seen, and I’m ashamed we’re letting these people down.”
Early in the last decade, desperate for manpower, the Army made strenuous efforts to recruit foreign and Commonwealth citizens, notably Fijians and Caribbeans.
About 7,000, eight per cent of the Army’s total strength, currently serve. They are British soldiers just like the others, and after four years they are promised British citizenship.
But Bale Baleiwai, a Fijian, is one of a growing number of soldiers prevented from exercising that promise on what appear to be the flimsiest of grounds. Wanting to see more of his family, traumatised by his Afghan service — “in the supermarket, a kid dropped a tin, and I was underneath the nearest trolley” — he decided to sign off.
A skilled mechanic, he had plenty of takers for his services in civilian life. There was even an offer from a Zambian copper mine. “We thought we were going to have the life, didn’t we?” remembers Mrs Baleiwai. “We were excited.”
Unknown to her husband, something he had rightly thought trivial was about to become, for him, a catastrophe. In September 2010, another soldier picked a fight. He fought back. It lasted about a minute. Two days later, he was told he had broken the man’s jaw and sent to his commanding officer for summary punishment.
The hearing lasted 10 minutes. Conditioned to obey his commanding officer, he did not ask for legal advice, or even try to see the evidence. If he had, he would have found that he did not break anyone’s jaw and that five witnesses said he had acted in self-defence. None of them was called to give evidence; he was convicted and fined. “I thought it was just an internal thing,” he said. It normally would have been.
But for the UK Border Agency, when it came to assess Baleiwai’s application for citizenship, the Army’s summary justice counted the same as a criminal conviction in court.