Last week in the House of Commons, the government announced the result of its summer review into the asylum rules applying to Iraqi translators and other staff helping British forces in Basra. You will recall that the pull-out from the city had left our former employees dangerously exposed. While governments such as Spain and Denmark had airlifted out their local staff at the end of their missions, we, the Brits, proposed to do nothing. It was only after a campaign in the press, and pressure from senior army officers, that Downing Street was prodded into action.

As the details of the package were rather lost in the mini-tornado that swept Westminster, let me spell out the salient points. To qualify for special help, Iraqi staff must have worked for the Brits since 2005, and for 12 months continuously. Roughly 800 people might fulfil these criteria - a tiny fraction of those who have helped sustain our army's appallingly difficult mission in southern Iraq since 2003.

This small group is being offered the chance of a pay-off - a few thousand quid to start afresh - or the chance to apply for a visa to enter Britain, possibly under favourable terms. But the money, such as it is, is not much use if you can't find anywhere safe to resettle. And it is not at all clear what criteria visa applicants will have to fulfil to be successful.

All in all, we were left with the nasty impression that the review's primary aim was to deflect negative coverage at home, rather than to honour our debt to our Iraqi employees. But should we be surprised at this grudging approach? Not really. It is indicative of a much larger problem: the government's wilful denial of the massive suffering of ordinary Iraqis, who are the real casualties of our ill-fated adventurism.

The region is now in the grip of a catastrophic refugee crisis. Not since the creation of Israel have so many people been on the move in the Middle East. But when was the last time you heard Gordon Brown mention them? Perhaps he judges that it wouldn't do his political fortunes any good to remind us of the human consequences of this unpopular war.

There is a difference between broadcasting bad news and working behind the scenes to remedy things - but on these terms, too, the Blair/ Brown government has failed. Consider this: in 2006, Britain gave £150,000 to the UN refugee agency dealing with the welfare of multitudes in Syria and Jordan. Yes, you read that correctly: £150,000 - less than the price of a studio flat in Westminster. True, our contributions have been ratcheted up since then, with an extra £5m in humanitarian aid announced last week. But it's still woefully inadequate given the billions ploughed into what is, in most people's eyes, an unwinnable war.

The shortcomings are not just financial. Two countries, Syria and Jordan, have been urged to keep their borders open to the refugees, while Britain has kept its firmly closed. This is morally indefensible. In Iraq, entire religious and ethnic groups are under threat. The horrific bomb attack on the minority Yezidi community by al Qaeda in August, leaving more than 400 dead, illustrated this graphically. Yezidi community leader Ali Rasho fled after receiving death threats. "We are in difficulties," says the former university professor, with considerable understatement, on the phone from Syria. In the short term, he doesn't see a future in an Iraq fought over by Islamic extremists, and wants to move to a country where his minority religion would be better tolerated.

Britain has a duty to offer sanctuary to people such as Rasho. Of course, we cannot resettle every Iraqi caught up in this nightmarish situation. But we can do better than we are doing at the moment. And if Mr Brown could work up the courage to face down the right-wing press over asylum seekers, he could muster some powerful arguments to the cause.

First, we have done it before. At the height of the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts, Britain gave temporary sanctuary to thousands of ordinary people who'd been left homeless. Secondly, others are doing better than us - even the US, albeit belatedly. In September, a bipartisan Iraqi Refugee Bill was passed in the Senate. Under its provisions, around 5000 Iraqi personnel would be fast-tracked into the US, and visa restrictions on members of targeted religious groups would be eased.

Thirdly, and most simply, we owe it to Iraqis because we are, in large part, responsible for the mess they find themselves in. British voters, with our traditions of fair play, would recognise that. Fourthly, this could actually help the Prime Minister politically. The past couple of weeks have left a damaging question-mark over his political courage. Helping needy Iraqis would have the unmistakable stamp of moral conviction, and might even wrongfoot the opposition. So, Mr Brown, I say do the right thing and roll out the welcoming carpet.

  • Ishbel Matheson works for Minority Rights Group International in London.