Gurkha campaigners voiced anger on Thursday after test cases for retired Nepalese fighters to settle in the UK were rejected — although the government hastily stepped in to try to reassure them.
In a new embarrassment for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown over the rights of the veteran soldiers, his immigration minister was forced to take to the airwaves at short notice to defuse the campaigners’ fury.
The snub to the Gurkhas came a day after Brown vowed to forge new plans within a month after the shock rejection by lawmakers last week of government proposals to let a limited number settle.
Under the current rules, the UK would only give residency rights to 4,300 ex-Gurkhas, falling short of demands that they be granted to all 36,000 Nepalese ex-soldiers who served with the British army before 1997.
Indian-born British actress Joanna Lumley said after meeting Brown on Wednesday that she believed she could trust him, and that the Gurkhas were counting on him to help them.
But on Thursday it emerged that five Gurkhas — including veterans of the Falklands and Gulf wars as well as the widow of another Gurkha soldier — had their applications to remain in the UK rejected by the government.
“We trusted the prime minister to take charge of the situation. This is an outrage and a disgrace,” a spokesman for the campaign said in an initial reaction.
The rejected applications on Thursday were for Falklands veteran Lance Corporal Gyanendra Rai, as well as two other veterans, Deo Prakash Limbu and Chakra Prasad Limbu, and a Gurkha widow.
But minutes before Lumley was due to hold a press conference to voice her ire, immigration minister Phil Woolas appeared on news channels to say the five Gurkha veterans had not been definitively rejected.
He said that the letters sent to the old soldiers said they had been rejected under current guidelines, but reassured them that their cases would be reviewed under new rules to be decided by July.
In fast-moving developments, he then held impromptu talks with Lumley before appearing at hastily arranged joint press conference with her at which the tension was palpable.
“There are new guidelines coming forward and no action will be taken until those guidelines are in place,” Woolas said, while Lumley said she had been contacted by the prime minister’s office, which was surprised at the rejections.
“I am confident, and I can give you reassurance, that these cases will be settled in favor of the Gurkhas,” the minister told Sky News TV.
The government has argued that the cost of bowing to the Gurkhas’ demands “could well run into billions of pounds.”
But lawmakers including some from Brown’s ruling Labour Party dealt a shock defeat to the plans in parliament last week, forcing the government to think again.