May 2016 saw a new chapter in the recruitment of military migrants to the UK armed forces. As my column in openDemocracy explains, shortages in certain trades have forced the MoD to waive the residency requirement for 200 recruits from Commonwealth countries.
From 1998 to 2013 the armed forces were allowed to recruit heavily from Commonwealth countries until the government put a stop to it for various reasons. Now there has been barely any reaction to the recent news that they are once again offering jobs to non-UK citizens from Commonwealth countries due to ‘perilous shortages’ across the army, navy and RAF.
Just one article in the Mail reported that Defence Minister Penny Mordaunt had waived the five-year residency requirements to allow 200 Commonwealth citizens a year to fill vacancies. According to the army website, there are currently jobs to be found, not as infantry soldiers but in a wide variety of supporting roles from chefs to marine engineers, “petroleum operators” to medical technicians.
On one level this strategy is simply common sense for an organization struggling to meet its targets: they need strong, fit, trainable bodies and to some extent they are not interested where they come from. The fact that applicants are not UK citizens is not the modern army’s problem, as the experience of employing migrant soldiers over 15 years has proved. The ever-tightening, punitive regulations emanating from the Home Office now means that the onus is on individuals to sort out their own complicated and expensive immigration status issues. The army website makes this crystal clear. For example the section on families tells prospective applicants:
“Once you’ve joined, your family will still be subject (to) the UK immigration controls. They will need to meet the Home Office’s rules before they can move to join you. They’ll need to be aware of the rules around how much they should earn and the speaking/ understanding the English language.”
They then add, generously: “Your family can still visit you in the UK, but they’ll need to follow the rules of a standard visitor visa.”
There’s no guarantee that those who have served the requisite five years will get UK citizenship, the costs of which have to be borne by the individual. This is worth restating as there are still many people out there who assume that military service performed by non-citizens somehow brings the automatic reward of naturalisation, which it has never done in the past. That is a longer story.
Apart from the importance of keeping track of military recruitment policies, particularly when it comes to minorities, this latest development is significant for two other reasons. The first relates to the historical precedence of including and excluding postcolonial migrants in the UK armed forces, particularly in the post1960 era. An air-brushed version of this history is routinely summoned to justify whatever the latest policy might be: in her written statement announcing the latest news, for example, Mordaunt added that there had been a ‘long tradition of soldiers from Commonwealth nations serving in the British military’.
It is comments like this that compound the general ignorance about how Britain was able to maintain its military power for so long. Thanks partly to the funding of centennial heritage projects, younger generations now have more chances to learn about the ‘contribution’ of troops from all over the empire in WW1 and WW2. This is despite the fact that the information has been available for years through the patient work of historians such as Stephen Bourne, David Killingray, Marika Sherwood and others. But there is surprisingly little attention paid to the servicewomen and men recruited from former colonies in the second half of the 20th century whether through the mechanism of the Commonwealth or not.
The artist Barbara Walker is a rare exception to this pattern of investigating the history of black soldiers from a safe historical distance. Her current exhibition of drawings, entitled ‘Shock and Awe’, makes direct connections between those who fought in regiments such as the British West Indies Regiment and the King’s African Rifles, and those black soldiers who have worked in the contemporary British Army. Her show, which can be seen at the MAC in Birmingham until 3rd July, is also unusual since it addresses the under-recognised role of servicewomen from the Caribbean and West India Regiments in World War II as well.
The decision to recruit 200 per year allows the Ministry of Defence to maintain control over numbers of non-UK nationals in the sector. It echoes a similar policy carried out in the early 1960s, following the end of conscription, when the government allowed recruiting officers to bring 200 men and 12 women from Fiji into the army. Many were consequently deployed in the ‘secret war’ in Oman, often as members of the special forces. At the time it was noted that there were plenty more willing recruits where they came from, but as much as the particular qualities of Fijian soldiers were appreciated, there were no further attempts to bring them in. The descendants of some of those individuals, many of whom had distinguished careers in the army, were among those who joined in the late 1990s, as I discovered when I wrote Military Migrants.