Thursday, March 17, 2011

What a farce! UK aid workers jet in to Japan only to fly straight back out again after being 'foiled by British Embassy red tape'

By David Williams, Arthur Martin and Jason Groves

Arrivals: The International Rescue Team land back at Heathrow after being refused entry into Japan

Disgusted UK rescue workers flew home from Japan yesterday bitterly accusing British diplomats of failing to help them assist tsunami victims.

Twelve members of the International Rescue Corps charity had spent two days kicking their heels in Tokyo airport.

They claimed they were unable to get to work because the British Embassy could not help them secure crucial papers which would have allowed them passage through roadblocks.

Quick turnaround: A spokesman for the team spoke of 'sheer disbelief' that the British embassy had not provided the correct paperwork

The team – veterans of earthquakes around the world – said it was 'heartbreaking to be stopped from helping by your own country'.

They returned on a day when:

• British nationals in Japan were advised to leave and plans for an emergency airlift were drawn up amid mounting fears of a nuclear catastrophe;

• France said Japan had 'lost control' of the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant and Russia warned that a 'worst-case' scenario could not be ruled out;

• The mayor of Minimisoma, 12 miles from the plant, said he had heard only on television about the first explosion there. 'The government doesn't tell us anything. They're leaving us to die';

• A growing humanitarian crisis saw almost half a million Japanese in camps, nearly a million households without power and tens of thousands without food or water.

The IRC squad arrived at Heathrow full of anger over the red tape which aborted their mercy mission.

An exhausted Ray Gray, 55-year-old leader of the team from the United Nations-registered organisation, said: 'All we needed was a bit of paper.'

On the ground: Members of the International Rescue Corps in action at a previous disaster zone

He and his colleagues had arrived in Tokyo on Monday. But Mr Gray, from Beverley, East Yorkshire, said: 'We never left the airport.

'The Japanese government had asked us to come but the British Embassy would not sign off the paperwork.

'You go there to help, we are good at what we do and have had more than 30 years experience doing it. We are very disappointed and feel let down.'

IRC operations director Willie McMartin added: 'We've never encountered the position where the British Embassy, our own country, came up with a show-stopper.'

Earlier in the House of Commons, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander had said: 'The Foreign Office will again have a lot of explaining to do if red tape and bureaucratic form filling has prevented a British rescue team from helping the Japanese people in their hour of need.'

However, faced with new criticism after a series of fiascos over Libya, Foreign Secretary William Hague pinned the blame for the aborted mission on the IRC's own failure to be properly equipped. He said it was 'convenient' for it to blame UK red tape instead.

'The Japanese Embassy advised them that they would have to be self-sufficient and that Japan would not be able to provide logistical support,' he said.

'They arrived there with no transport or logistical or language support in place so I think that gave rise to the difficulty.

'They are a respected organisation and we want them to be able to help in many occasions in the future but I think sometimes it's convenient to blame our embassies for difficulties which have arisen in other ways.'

He told the Commons foreign affairs committee that embassy staff had made contact with the team when they arrived in Tokyo and yesterday morning had sent a letter of support to the ministry of foreign affairs, which they followed with telephone calls.

Wiped out: Destroyed houses stand amongst a scene of destruction at Ishinomaki city. With thousands of people still unaccounted for Japan is desperate for foreign aid

'The difficulty here is people not being able to fit in with the overall Japanese plan of how they are conducting their operation.

'The embassy was already "fully stretched" dealing with the disaster and could not provide the logistical support,' he said.

Officials pointed out the IRC team had arrived with no transport or Japanese speakers and the embassy would have been required to have provided a vehicle pass.

However, IRC spokesman Paul Baxter was clear where he placed the blame.

'We went over there with the permission of the Japanese,' he said.

'They wanted us there. But once in Tokyo, the authorities would not give us a transit permit until they had received paperwork from the British Embassy stating that we were a bona fide charity for disaster zones.

'For some reason this never came. It's heartbreaking seeing the disaster on the TV and knowing we could have helped out. It was down to the embassy to get the paperwork sorted. I know they are busy, but this was important. We've never had a British embassy do this to us before and we have been to 31 world disasters.'

Before leaving, the group donated all the aid they had taken with them to other agencies.

The IRC could be faced with a £60,000 bill for the aborted mission. A spokesman for the charity, which is funded entirely by public donations, said that British Airways often gives discounted flights for its rescue team but on this occasion might claim the full fare because of the sudden change of plans.

Formed in 1981, the British-based IRC is registered with the UN as a disaster rescue service supported by donations from the public and sponsorship from industry. Its trained volunteers include engineers, members of the emergency services, mechanics, management consultants and council workers.

Mr Gray, a trade union negotiator with Unison, said: 'Even as we were leaving they asked us to stay because they said they were still trying. But there were no guarantees and we couldn't just spend our two weeks sleeping in the airport.'

He said the Japanese people were bewildered when the team were forced to go home.

'They just didn't understand. They kept asking, "Why?" We've all taken time off work to do this. All we've achieved is getting embroiled in a political argument, which is crazy.'


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