Residency Rules Lifted for 200 Military Migrants

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 BourneDavid KillingrayMarika 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.

God help us: race, religion and recruitment

Zeeshan Hashmi is a former soldier in the British Army. In 2006 his brother, Jabron, became the first, and so far only, UK Muslim serviceman to die in Afghanistan. Writing in the Telegraph recently Hashmi explained what was wrong with the current obsession with targeting faith minorities to join the armed forces:

Joining the Armed Forces is not about religion. You join a unit as a soldier and when you deploy you trust your comrades with your life. You fight for the man next to you, not for anything else.

Speaking from the unique position afforded by not just by his own record of service but the intense symbolism of his brother’s death, Hashmi rejected the suggestion that young Muslims should be encouraged to join the forces as an antidote to radicalization. In his opinion, racism and segregation in Britain were far greater problems than the reluctance shown by ethnic minorities to volunteer for the armed forces.

Faith in numbers

Recent pronouncements by army leaders show the deep historical connections between contemporary racism and militarism. First there were the amplified headlines about the absence of Muslim soldiers in the army. Then there were the flickering embers of the martial race doctrine fanned by the Telegraph: “British Army examines plans to create a Sikh regiment”, swiftly followed by: “Sikhs make our Armed Forces even stronger”.

These headlines can be knitted together to tell their own crude story, but they are also easy to miss as they flash by. It would be a mistake to dismiss them though. The idea that military service constitutes the ultimate proof of “belonging” in and to Britain cannot be left unchallenged.

The first point to note, however, is that the army is most interested in bodies, especially those that are young, fit, pliable and resilient, in the literal sense of the word. Finding a reliable supply of volunteers is a constant headache for recruiters, today more than ever. After much-publicized mass redundancies and devastating verdicts on the Third Afghan War, the army is experiencing a profound crisis as it tries to attract a new generation of young men and women into its ranks. Having contracted out the recruitment process to Capita two years ago, it recently launched a rebranding campaign after a survey by OnePoll found that 25% of those aged between 18 and 34 believed the army was less relevant now than ever before.

Leaving aside any political factors, there are demographic reasons why the UK armed forces need to recruit from minority ethnic populations. Then there are the legal obligations to conform to equality and diversity standards, post-MacPherson. Besides, in this day and age it doesn’t look good for a national organization to appear uniformly white. Before getting to the more contentious issue of Muslim soldiers (not to mention the chilling fantasy of resurrecting a Sikh regiment), we might consider a longer view of the army’s record in race relations.

Systemic failures

Looking back over the history of British Army recruiting practices post-1961, the institution has only ever appealed for minorities to join when it is in trouble. One of the most notorious campaigns was the 1998 Saatchi-designed poster featuring the faces of black soldiers inserted into the First World War poster with the text: your Country needs YOU.

In the late 1990s, when the campaign was launched, the MoD had narrowly avoided legal action after a catalogue of racist incidents in the army and a systemic failure to admit or deal with the extent of discrimination and bullying, particularly in certain regiments. The drive to recruit more black and Asian soldiers was part of a five-year plan to improve equality and diversity in the organization – the idea being that more minorities would help change the internal culture thereby making it more attractive for minorities. At that time they barely made up one per cent.

After 2001, when the Race Relations Amendment Act was passed, the armed forces had a statutory obligation to represent the ethnic diversity of the population as a whole, which only increased the pressure. However, in the meantime, the New Labour government had agreed to lift the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens, with an explicit recognition that this would increase the proportion of ethnic minority soldiers. Given that there was also a shortfall in numbers, recruiters needed no encouragement to haul in as many migrants as they needed.

Less than a decade later, the MoD was in trouble again, although this time it was because they were trying to negotiate a limit on the number of non-UK entrants, a move that would contravene equality laws. The sheer success in recruiting applicants from outside the country – some units in the Royal Logistics had as many as 80% soldiers from Commonwealth countries – was prompting the army leadership to worry about the ‘Britishness’ of the organization. By 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission had allowed them to cap certain regiments at 15%.

Over the next five years, the proportion of black and minority ethnic soldiers in the regular army stabilized at 10-11% – although the figure was much lower in the officer corps, and there were fewer minorities in the other two services. In the meantime, there were other issues relating to military culture that were attracting attention, such as the high levels of sexual abuse endured by female soldiers. The question of institutional racism had dropped out of sight since the army was able to promote a reasonable image of diversity in terms of ethnicity and faith.

Front page news

In 2015 the situation already looks very different. The reinstatement of the residency requirement in 2013 virtually ended all recruitment from outside the UK and as a result, the numbers of minorities are beginning to fall. The successful employment of migrants had been masking the fact that at least two thirds of minority ethnic soldiers – including those who were from minority faiths – were in fact from Commonwealth backgrounds. In other words, the proportion of UK-born BMEs had risen from one to roughly three per cent in fifteen years – meaning that the crisis can no longer be disguised.

The corporate response from the army is twofold: to admit failure on their part and to single out a particular minority for attention. In early February, the head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, admitted that: “Our recruitment from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities have been improving over the years, but it is nowhere near it needs to be, we have to do more.”

Insisting that the organization was mostly concerned with the quality of the individual recruit, he reiterated the now standard outreach line that “The values and standards we espouse resonate closely with these communities and there is much common ground that we can build on to broaden our recruitment base.”

Figures were released to show that there were “only” 480 Muslims in the army, out of a total of 88,500. Whereas in the past this figure was used to prove that there were plenty of Muslim soldiers in the forces, this time it was made clear that a good proportion of these were Commonwealth citizens and therefore didn’t count.

The media amplified the message right away with headlines like: “The British Army launches drive to recruit more Muslims”. Press coverage revealed that the army had been “trying to engage with communities in places such as Bradford and Burnley, where Muslims account for about 25% and 10% of the population respectively” and that recruiting drives were planned in those towns . Anecdotes about discovering the happy overlap between military values and Muslim ones were wheeled out, demonstrating how that the security services were perfectly able to embrace the rubric of equality and diversity for their own strategic purposes.

The report in the Independent spelled it out: “The British Army is making a determined push to recruit Muslims in an attempt to counter the rise in radicalisation which has seen hundreds of young men from this country join violent extremist groups like Isis and al-Shabaab”. The Mail reiterated the stock line that there were more Muslims leaving the country than there were in the forces: “Army drive for more Muslims after Paris massacre and rise of Islamic State as it’s revealed just 480 are currently serving”.

Martial lore

Meanwhile the Telegraph reported that the army chiefs were seriously considering the feasibility of a Sikh unit, including the possibility of a reserve company. Nicholas Soames, one of the key supporters, raised the topic in the House of Commons in a suitably bonkers fashion:

“Would you not agree with me that it’s high time to do away with the political correctness which infects some of this thinking and actually raise a Sikh regiment to serve in the country and make up a very serious gap in our Armed Forces?”

Mark Francois, Minister for the Armed Forces, told him that he was not the first person to suggest a Sikh-only contingent, saying that it “may well have merit” and confirming that it was being looked into. The prospect was also welcomed as “an excellent idea” by Rory Stewart, chairman of the Defence Select Committee.

Picking up the ball and running with it, Tom Tugendhat, military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff and Tory candidate for Tonbridge and Malling, explained in the Telegraph why this time it would be different from the old days:

“This would not be the echo of a long-dead imperial past but an innovation worthy of a modern battle-ready army. Just as Irish, Scots, Welsh and English units attract men with regional affiliations, and sappers, signallers and logisticians draw men and women with specialist skills, a new Sikh unit would allow the common ethos essential to seeing strong fighting spirit develop.

While the fantasy of a Sikh regiment can be dismissed as a throwback to the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the Indian Army, the suggestion that Muslims should be targeted in special recruitment drives evokes the same military history in ways that are ultimately counter-productive.

Zeeshan Hashmi was the only person to condemn the proposal. It was a “terrible idea”, he wrote shortly afterwards. “Likewise a Muslim regiment. It may look good on a PowerPoint slide but that is it. In reality, I fear it would only highlight differences, not promote unity”.

Hashmi is clearly right to state that singling minorities out on the basis of faith or ethnicity would be divisive and counterproductive. He spoke from his own experience that minority soldiers have to deal with racism and bigotry in the army, just as they do outside.

“Toxic brand”

But there is a more important point about the clumsiness of the military response to the recruitment crisis. When military institutions intervene in debates about integration, social cohesion and now, radicalization, they overstep their bounds. The fact that they are wedded to a wider security policy that has been shown to have been deeply flawed compounds the problem. The recent attack on the government’s Prevent strategy, made by a former police officer, proves yet again that the police too are both ignorant and uninformed when it comes to communicating with Muslim communities, with little “basic knowledge of race and faith issues”.

The reasons why so many young people are drawn to join groups like ISIS are both complex and little understood. But without acknowledging the racism, hostility and surveillance that Muslims face today, the army doesn’t have a hope in hell of increasing the proportion of minorities in its ranks, regardless of what faith they adhere to.







Britain’s imperial armies come to the rescue of its modern forces

This article was first published by The Conversation UK on June 27th 2014.


…The World War I centenary provides a new opportunity to promote Britain’s imperial past as a history of shared suffering and sacrifice. The job at hand is to persuade the British-born descendants of those soldiers drawn from the colonies and dominions that military service belongs to a venerable family tradition, and is therefore part of their heritage.

The phrase “all faiths, colours and races” is a safe way to do this, to assert an inclusive notion of citizenship in the context of a collective national project. It perfectly illustrates the concept of “militarised multiculture” – by which I mean the way that diversity acquires a particular value when dressed in military clothing.

Cultural and ethnic diversity within the armed forces is rarely talked about outside the realm of PR, and the question of institutional racism is kept well out of sight. Indeed, the story of the British Army’s modernisation is not widely known. But like all other public institutions subject to equality and diversity law, the armed forces have been forced to make substantial reforms since the late 1990s…

Read more here



War, public memory and the legacy of empire

Two recent articles that discuss the potential problems or contradictions entailed in compiling archival and documentary accounts of military labour performed by colonial and post colonial soldiers:

In Sikhs, War, MemoryKaty Sian explores potential problems and contradictions entailed in compiling archival and documentary accounts of military labour performed by colonial and post colonial soldiers. She asks why Sikhs are “so insistent on fighting and participating within imperial wars for western nations that continue to exclude, ill-treat, and treat them as inferior?” Is there any other form of belonging available to (post)colonial soldiers and subjects which does not endorse an imperial patriotism?

Elsewhere,  I discuss the figure of the British Muslim soldier in the context of the impending commemoration of WW1: Britain’s imperial armies come to the rescue of its modern forces






70 years on: the RAF acknowledges role of Caribbean pilots in 20th century

Exhibition at RAF Museum, Colindale.

It’s a tiny concentration of history in a huge space crammed with a forest of aircraft. But it’s a start. The museum has been working with Black Cultural Archives and historians to commemorate the men and women who joined the RAF from the Caribbean. This exhibition closed on April 22nd, but will form the basis of a permanent display in due course.

In preparation for the exhibition the RAF Museum appealed to veterans to come forward and tell their stories. Although there are numerous books on the subject, many of them autobiographical, the museum has not shown much interest in recording or recognising this extraordinary history until now. This is even more shocking considering the fact that so many of the men and women involved went on to enjoy illustrious careers. One of the most famous figures, Ulric Cross, died in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on October 4th 2013, at the age of 96.

Cross was the highest ranking West Indian World War II veteran still alive and one of the few officers left of the legendary 139 Pathfinder Squadron of RAF Bomber Command. He later became Attorney General of Cameroon, and an esteemed judge in Ghana and Tanzania. After his return to Trinidad he served as a High Court Judge and from 1979 as a member of the Court of Appeal. In 1990 he became High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago to the UK and Ambassador to Germany and France.

Information is widely available online. Here is one useful website, and here is some background behind that. There are numerous books on this history both autobiographical and documentary (most produced by amateur historians) so there is really no excuse for the MoD/RAF Museum to have left it so late in compiling a more fitting display.

I took some pictures of the display to give an idea of how the information was presented. Apologies for the lack of photoshop editing but hopefully they are still readable.

The panel on post-war migration showing that many of the Windrush passengers were in fact RAF veterans, serving members or recruits

In addition to the panels focusing on individuals, there were also sections that provided historical context as well, as the pictures above and below illustrate.

I happened to notice the museum’s existing section on ‘diversity’ as I passed by on my way out. This (below) is an example of the information provided in a different era.

One of the earlier panels on black history in the museum




Failing the good character test

This item was released by courtesy of Forces Watch

On the 25th February 2014 MP Madeleine Moon asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many applications for British citizenship have been made by foreign and Commonwealth personnel (a) currently or (b) recently serving in the armed forces who have been refused citizenship on the grounds that the good character request is not met; and if she will make a statement.

James Brokenshire (Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration); Old Bexley and Sidcup, Conservative) replied that four serving members of HM armed forces have been refused British citizenship because they did not meet the criteria set for good character in the 12 months leading to their application.

Meanwhile, Poloko Hiri, a former soldier from Botswana, who was initially denied UK citizenship owing to a speeding conviction, is to have the decision reviewed. Hiri served with the army for four years and is now a reservist. He had an “exemplary” record during his full-time military career.

His application for citizenship was refused in 2012 but a High Court judge has now ruled the decision-making process was legally flawed and should be reconsidered by the home secretary.

UK authorities decided Sapper Hiri did not have the ‘good character’ required for British citizenship because of a speeding conviction which will not be spent until 2016. In November 2011, he had admitted exceeding a temporary 50mph speed limit on the M1, for which he received a £100 fine and five points on his licence.

Inevitably the case was made that Hiri’s readiness to fight for Britain qualified him for citizenship.  His commanding officer commented: ‘To see that Sapper Hiri has been denied British citizenship for what is deemed as ‘bad character’ directly contradicts his performance as a serving soldier.’

His solicitor Toufique Hossain said: ‘Our argument was simply that a man who gave his life to fight for this country, and in every other way but for one speeding offence, showed good character, should not be deprived of British citizenship.’

I wonder whether the four cases cited by James Brokenshire will be able to contest the decisions to block their citizenship as well. More importantly, is this reasoning possible when the individuals have been working as doctors, teachers, nurses and other professions which demand selfless commitment and forms of sacrifice?

Last barrier to citizenship?

Commonwealth soldiers serving in the UK armed forces are not often in the news these days, but when they are, the occasion is invariably prompted by immigration issues. Most recently it has been in connection with individuals who have served in the army for years but, after leaving, been refused settlement in the UK or even UK citizenship, for a variety of reasons. These situations routinely point to the contradictions inherent in their fraught position as soldiers (patriotic citizens!) and migrants (unwanted scroungers!).

The latest episode to attract media attention – although minimal by comparison – concerns a private members bill currently going through parliament. Its aim is to fix a clause in the 1981 Nationality Act that effectively disadvantages members of the armed forces applying for UK citizenship. The 1981 act ruled that those applying for citizenship must show that they were physically present in the country five years to the day before the application is made. For those Commonwealth citizens in the armed forces, either based outside the country or deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, this presents an obstacle that was not officially recognized until 2010 when the coalition government was forced to consider the legal implications of the military covenant.

This private member’s bill, proposed by Woking Tory MP Jonathan Lord, Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill has romped through the House of Commons with minimal objections from those who stayed in to debate it. Having established that it only affects around 200 service people in all, and won’t herald a new flood of migrants demanding to live in the UK, the bill has now begun the process through the House of Lords. A transcript of the Commons debates can be found here and gives a vivid, though utterly predictable, account of how these issues are treated by our leaders.

Commonwealth army recruits in 2010

Map showing home countries of Commonwealth recruits at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick, in 2010.

Facing the Facts

The quarterly stats published by the Ministry of Defence in November 2013 have some interesting details in them. For anyone paying attention to the changing size and composition of the UK armed forces they contain some useful facts, figures and trends – not least about ethnicity and gender. But diversity in the armed forces is not exactly a front page topic, especially when they are under-recruiting and down-sizing all at the same time.

However, it’s important to track what’s happening in this hugely symbolic national institution. In July the MoD stopped the armed forces from recruiting Commonwealth citizens unless they have been living in the UK for five years continuously. This took effect in July 2013 so it is too soon to show the impact of the decision in the stats and considering how they might be affected in the long term.

One of the tables shows the intake to UK Regular Forces (including deployed reservists)  by Ethnic Origin and Nationality. It is worth pointing out again that the army has the highest proportion of BMEs (<10%) and the other services fall some way behind.

Number crunching

In the 12 months ending in 30 September 2013, 70.1% of new BME soldiers were non-UK citizens (290); 29.9% (120) were UK citizens. That means that well over two thirds of BMEs recruited are not holders of British passports and therefore, since July 2013, would no longer be eligible to apply for military work unless they can fulfill the residency requirement. The relatively high proportion in these figures must reflect a surge of applications/acceptances to beat the change in regulations.

Then there’s the actual ‘strength’ of the armed forces, as opposed to the ‘intake’. Another table shows that the number of UK-born BMEs has not changed very much over the past couple of years – the figures are 66.2% non-UK (6590) as opposed to 33.8% UK citizens (3380).

All about The War

In other words, the impact of recruiting Commonwealth soldiers – military migrants – has been to increase substantially the ethnic diversity of the British Army over the past decade. Bearing in mind that this category also includes minorities who would not self-identify as black (white South Africans, for example), the pattern of diversity in the next round of statistics will surely begin to show a decrease in the numbers of BMEs. This represents a problem for the MoD – but not because of any obligation to recognise equality issues.

Recruiting BMEs into the armed forces will continue to be a priority for demographic reasons alone. In a future post I will be arguing that the government’s WW1 commemorations aimed at recognising Commonwealth ‘contributions’ (under the heading Our Shared History, Our Common Future) are in part a giant recruitment exercise.

Calling attention to the global dimensions of military labour entailed in ‘The Great War’ means that there will be countless funded events and initiatives aimed at Britain’s minority communities. The project of reclaiming imperialist history as proof of shared suffering and sacrifice also entails the task of persuading the British-born descendants of those early Commonwealth soldiers that military work belongs to an honourable family tradition.