Rugby star Joe Cokanasiga slams ‘betrayal’ of Commonwealth service personnel

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - England Training - Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot, Britain - March 8, 2019 England's Joe Cokanasiga during training Action Images via Reuters/Peter Cziborra

LONDON,09 MARCH 2021 (EVENING STANDARD UK) – England rugby star Joe Cokanasiga has called on the Government to halt its “betrayal” of Commonwealth members of the armed forces as his father battles for a visa to be allowed residency in the UK.

Ilaitia Cokanasiga served in the Royal Logistic Corps for 14 years, completing operational tours to Iraq and Afghanistan but he still faces applying for a visa to remain in the UK and must now pay fees of £2,389(US$3,301) to complete the application.

His son has now made an appeal on Commonwealth Day for the fees to be removed and the process simplified for the many families struggling through the application process.

He is supporting a three-year campaign by the Royal British Legion.

It’s totally unfair that the Government is making people who have served and sacrificed in the armed forces pay for the right to stay in the UK.

He told the PA news agency: “The main word that comes to mind is a feeling of betrayal. He represented this country for 15 years, made a lot of sacrifices.

“I was born into an Army family, all we knew was serving the British Army and when he finished we felt ashamed as if we had done something wrong, particularly for my dad there was no sense of belonging.”

Cokanasiga, who plays wing for Bath and whose brother Philip 19, has played for London Irish and England under-18s, said he hoped the Government would change its treatment of Commonwealth service personnel.

In 2020 there were 5,110 Commonwealth citizens serving across the armed forces and in the past five years, there have been up to 400 applications by service personnel each year for indefinite leave to remain – 0.6% of the total granted by the UK.

Coganasiga described how his father had to return to Fiji last year and was unable to return for a year because of immigration issues and only returned to his home in Didcot, Oxfordshire, last month and is still awaiting the outcome of his visa application.

He said: “The situation with dad’s visa issues has caused our family a great deal of distress. In a year when we’ve all been affected by the pandemic, the uncertainty around his residency has been really traumatic.”

He described how as a child his family was posted overseas to Germany and Brunei and it was through his service education that he was introduced to rugby, eventually playing alongside his father in armed forces community tournaments.

He said: “I’ve seen first-hand how much military personnel from the Commonwealth have done for this country.

“That’s why I feel so strongly about supporting the Royal British Legion’s Stop the Service Charge campaign. It’s totally unfair that the Government is making people who have served and sacrificed in the armed forces pay for the right to stay in the UK.”

Andy Pike, RBL head of policy and research, said: “Joe’s case highlights how it’s not just veterans from the Commonwealth but also their families who are suffering because of these unfair immigration rules.

“These individuals and families have given years of loyal service to the United Kingdom, yet many are facing a desperate situation if they wish to remain here when they leave the military.

“Whilst we welcome the news that the Government is to review this issue, many veterans and their families are still struggling with each day that passes.

“That’s why, on Commonwealth Day, we’re calling on the Government to publish its proposals as soon as possible and take action to abolish these unfair visa application fees.

“The current situation is a poor way of saying thank you to people we encouraged to leave their countries to serve in the British armed forces.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “We are hugely grateful to the contribution of all our armed forces.

“The Home Office and Ministry of Defence work closely with our non-UK recruits to make sure they are fully aware of how they and their families can settle in the UK, and the costs involved.

“This includes working with the Joining Forces Credit Union to offer financial advice, savings packages and loans to help personnel pay for visa costs.

“The Ministry of Defence will shortly launch a public consultation to consider how we can offer greater flexibility for serving personnel in the future.”

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