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U.K. Terror Plot Puts Spotlight on Medical Recruiting

Hear NPR's Rob Gifford

Britain has lowered its terrorism threat level after eight people were captured in connection with a series of failed car bombings linked to doctors of foreign birth.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said an attack was still highly likely but no longer imminent. The threat level was reduced as sources in the U.K. suggested that the police were no longer looking for any other suspects in relation to the attempted bomb attacks in London and Glasgow.

All eight of the suspects worked in Britain's National Health Service, or NHS, and the arrests have spotlighted not only immigration but also professional immigration — the recruitment of doctors and engineers.

Six physicians — one each from Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan and two from India — have been detained. Also in custody are the Jordanian's wife, a medical assistant, and a doctor and medical student thought to be from the Middle East, possibly Saudi Arabia. None has been charged.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged more thorough checks on professional immigrants.

"We'll expand the background checks that are being done where there are highly skilled migrant workers coming into this country. ... I have asked [for] ... an immediate review as to what arrangements we must make in relation to recruitment to the NHS," Brown told Parliament.

In many ways, Britain is the new America for immigrants, and the English Channel has become the Rio Grande.

Fifty years ago, just one in 25 Britons was born abroad. Today, the rate is one in 12, compared with the U.S. rate of one in 10. In the past three years, more than 20,000 medical doctors have arrived on British shores, and now nearly 40 percent of registered doctors in Britain were trained overseas.

Gary Hindle, head of Terrorism and Homeland Security at the Royal United Service Institute, said the law of supply and demand is driving the trend.

"The government is talking about more extensive checks. What does that mean, though?" Hindle asks. "We have a shortage of doctors, and, especially from Mideast and Iraq, there is an exodus of professionals.

"It's hard to put any measures in place that would prevent this," he said.

The National Health Service has defended its procedures for vetting foreign doctors.

Dr. Edwin Borman, head of the International Committee at the British Medical Association, said there are "very rigorous checks" to determine immigration status, fitness to practice and criminal history.

But a worrying, almost prophetic, story emerged Wednesday from Baghdad: a Church of England clergyman, Andrew White, who is president for the Foundation of Reconciliation in the Middle East, based in Iraq, said he was at a conference in Amman, Jordan, in April when he was taken aside by a Sunni religious leader.

"I listened to him for 40 minutes, and he went on about how they were going to destroy Britons and Americans and how they were going to be doing more in the U.K. and U.S., and he finished by saying 'those who cure you will kill you,' " White said.

He said he did not fully understand what the man meant, though he did report the comment to a British diplomat. The words "Those who cure you will kill you" have been splashed across British newspapers.

Whether or not those arrested over the weekend in Britain are charged and convicted, White said he believes that plenty of militant doctors and professionals from Iraq and the Middle East are heading to the West to work.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.