Monday, October 09, 2006

Not quite British enough...

AS politicians tell us how important it is that people try to be British, and conform to "our values", and chattering pundits patriotically ponder the poser of "national identity", an 83-year old widow in Southgate, north London, is waiting in her council flat for a verdict from the Court of Appeal, as to how "British" she really is.

For Diana Elias, her "Britishness" is no small matter. It is an issue she has had to live with most of her life. Diana was just 17 in December 1941 when Japanese troops marched into Hong Kong, where she lived with her family. The occupiers decided to round up British and other enemy nationals. They had been given lists. They came to people's homes in the dead of night, dragging screaming women out by their hair. Diana and her family were herded on to a truck, and taken to Stanley camp, where they were among almost 3,000 people interned.

Conditions were grim. People suffered and died from deficiency diseases, and from dysentery and typhus. Diana's mother had a nervous breakdown. Diana still has nightmares about the camp, or wakes in the night thinking about her family's experiences, and cannot go back to sleep.

The family were interned and suffered for being British. Her grandparents had been British, and her father, a textile merchant, travelled the world proudly showing his British passport. Her brothers had registered for service in Crown forces. But Her Majesty's government has insisted that she is not quite British enough. Their argument is that she has no 'ancestral connection' to the United Kingdom.

Back in the days of the British Empire, many families like hers, Jews from Iraq and India, qualified to be British subjects, and some prospered and became famous, like the Sassoons, of Mumbai, or David Marshall, first prime minister of Singapore. No one questioned their British status so long as they were seen as assets, nor when they served, or like Diana and her family, were interned and suffered for being British.

After the war, the family were not able to return to their old home. Diana found work as a travel agent's sales manager in Mumbai. She travelled to Britain frequently, and settled here after her husband Nissim died in 1972.

In November 2000 the government announced a £167 million compensation scheme whereby British citizens who had been interned by the Japanese would each recieve a £10,000 "debt of honour".

Then in May the following year it announced that only those who could show an ancestral "blood link" to this country would qualify. That meant up to 2,400 people whose parents might have worked in the Far East, or served in the British military or colonial administration, could be disqualified because they did not have a parent or grandparent in Britain. Over 1,100 people have already been denied compensation.

Diana Elias complained to the offcial Ombudsman, and in 2004 she took the government to court. An internal government memo revealed during the case half-admitted that the authorities were discriminating by evaluating a person's right to compensation partly on racist grounds. Written in July 2001 by the former head of the MoD's Veterans Agency, it states: 'It is true to deny we are being racist, but we are in fact including race as deciding factor as part of our eligibility criteria.'

Last year Diana did recieve £10,000, after an Ombudsman's report said there had been "maladministration" in her case. But she has continued her legal fight, not for more money for herself, but to establish the principle that what the government is doing is wrong.

'What this "blood link" means is that being British is not good enough. Being interned because you were British is not good enough. You only count if you were born here in the UK, or your family originates from here. If not, then you are another type of British. A type of British whose suffering and rights do not matter one bit. I was born British. I have always been British. My grandparents were British. My father was British and so was my mother. I can remember my father taking great pride in the fact he was British and so was his family. And I was proud to be British. I still am.'

'One of the things that makes me proud to be British and to make this country my home is that people of different races, origins and backgrounds have mixed here and made a success of that. There could not have been more of a mix at my 80th birthday party, but almost all of us were British.'

Diana Elias saw the "blood link" rule for what it was. 'I realised it would discriminate in a way that is racist. I did not need to go to court to realise that. One of my brothers Charlie, was refused under the same bloodlink rule. He died soon afterwards, considered a second-class type of British by his own country.'

On 7 July 2005 High Court Judge Sir Patrick Elias (no relation) said the bloodlink rule breached the Race Relations Act because:
“the criteria involved in this case inevitably involve indirect discrimination on grounds of national origin. They treat less favourably those who are of non-British origin…. here it is plain that the extent of the discrimination on grounds of national origin is very marked indeed.”

But the Secretary of State for Defence appealed to the Court of Appeal who heard the case in April 2006. Even if the Ministry of Defence loses its appeal those denied compensation may not be paid automatically. But Diana Elias has exposed the mean streak of racialism in Whitehall and opened the way for others to demand justice.

and for information from the lawyers about this and similar cases:

Diana Elias witness statement: extracts

1. Despite me being British all my life, despite my family's details being handed over to the invading Japanese troops in 1941 because we were all British, despite us being interned in Stanley Camp for four years because we were British, despite me facing the consequences both in the camp and for the rest of my life because I was British, I was not, and I am still not, quite British enough in the eyes of the Ministry of Defence. That is because I do not have what it calls a 'bloodlink' to the UK. I do not have a bloodlink because I was not born here and neither were my parents or my grandparents. If you have no bloodlink, then you are another type of British. A second class type of British. A type of British whose suffering and rights do not matter one bit.

2. I would also like the Ministry of Defence to finally accept that its bloodlink rule is racist and to compensate me for the hurtful discrimination I have had to put up with over the last five years. Last but not least, I would like an apology.

3. It was a long time before I gave any thought to the possibility of compensation. When the camp was liberated, my family and I were evacuated from Hong Kong by ship. We were given no opportunity to return to our home where I had lived all my life, or my father and brothers to restart the business. We all had to start our lives from scratch again. No help was on offer. Worst still, my father traveled ahead of us because he was so ill and I never saw him alive again.

4. When I was little my father traveled around the world as a textiles merchant, using his British passport. When he did business with people he would always make a point of letting them know that he was British. Before I was born in Hong Kong the family had traveled there from India. They could do that because they were British and wherever we were in the world, all of us would always be British. It was a constant thing in our lives, a foundation. And I was proud to be British. I still am.

5. I was British when I was interned. I was interned because I was British. So was my family. The Japanese knew I was British. The lists of British people had been handed over to them. Yet here was my own government, the British government, saying that I had yet to be considered to be British enough to be paid like everyone else.

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At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

second link is broken


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