The end of an era?

 

On July 11th 2013 the MoD announced that it was all over. No more Commonwealth citizens would be recruited into the armed forces unless they had lived in the UK for five years. The practice of recruiting Commonwealth soldiers, often directly in their own countries, has been consigned to history. Who knows how this interlude from 1998 to 2013 will be narrated in future accounts of Britain’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The announcement by the MoD was brief: ‘Commonwealth recruits who wish to join the Armed Forces (Regulars) will need to demonstrate they have lived in the UK for the last 5 years’. Since no other information was provided, it is necessary to speculate on the reasons behind this decision.

There are two possible explanations. The first is that the ‘British jobs for British workers’ mantra, uttered memorably by Gordon Brown in 2009 but amplified over and over through the anti-immigration politics of the coalition government, finally won the day. We can only imagine that there were elements in the Home Office who insisted that it was unfeasible for the country’s national military institutions to employ migrants from outside the EU. It was well known that the UKBA were not keen on making concessions for military migrants and balked at having to do so in the face of logistical and ideological problems. The fact that hundreds of soldiers are being made redundant as part of the cuts to the regular army must have made it harder to defend the practice of recruiting from outside the country and therefore easier to argue for changing the rules.

A second explanation is that equality and diversity no longer means what it used to. The imperative to recruit a certain proportion of minority ethnic soldiers has given way to an emphasis on removing disadvantage for individuals based on their race, sex, sexuality, disability, religion or any other factor recognised in law. The recruitment of Commonwealth soldiers from 1998 on enabled the army to increase its proportion of ethnic minorities from almost zilch in the late 1990s to a respectable ten per cent a decade later. By 2011 only one third of these were born in the UK which suggests that strategies to persuade young British citizens from minority backgrounds to join the army were not going very well.

With the privatisation of army recruitment in March this year, and the disbandment of outreach work like the army’s Diversity Action Recruiting Group, it will be some time before we see the impact of this decision to reinstate the five-year residency rule. Meanwhile, for those like Henry from St Lucia who were encouraged to buy expensive one-way tickets to the UK to complete their qualifying process for the army, only to find out that they were no longer eligible, this was a devastating blow.

 

Institutional racism and the police in 1982

Considering the volume of words expended on Thatcher’s legacy following her death, it was shocking how few people addressed the question of racism in the period immediately following her election in 1979.
Daniel Trilling recalled the infamous ‘swamping speech’ from 1978 but there really hasn’t been much else. Reading some of the reflections on the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder made me go back and root out this edition of Searchlight from 1982.
As the first paragraph in the article reveals, one response from the Met to the riots of 1981 was to insert a course on ‘multiculturalism’ in the curriculum for young police cadets.
John Fernandes, the instructor given this task, was so distressed by the cadets’ level of bigoted ignorance that he passed them on to us at Searchlight, as well as to Channel Four.
It might come as a shock to some people that the idea of institutional racism (or institutionalised racism as we used to call it) goes way back and was not invented by the Macpherson report in 1998.
I had actually forgotten this episode – and what it meant to publish this material – but went back to look at it when I was researching the army’s record of (not) dealing with racism throughout the 1990s.

British Muslim soldiers

The significance of Muslims serving in the UK military has been highlighted several times in the last few days, both times in relation to the killing of a soldier in Woolwich. The first was by Paul Goodman on the conservativehome website. In a longer piece on the implications of a terror attack committed by Islamists in the UK he said:

Islam is compatible with democracy, Islamism is not – but politicians have neither the knowledge nor the mandate to help shape “a British Islam”.  Perhaps all they can do is run an effective security strategy, and make limited political progress.  The latter would include recruiting more Muslims into the armed forces – there were about 600 in 2010: one of the biggest barriers to recruitment, according to Shiraz Maher’s Ties That Bind, is that young Muslims are unaware that the opportunity to join is there at all.  (Maher’s pamphlet for Policy Exchange tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of Muslims fought for Britain in two world wars.)

Here we note that offering young British Muslims the chance to join the armed forces would constitute ‘limited political progress’.

The second piece approached the subject of Muslims in the armed forces head on, and from the perspective of an ex-army officer and member of the Armed Forces Muslim Association. Afzal Amin’s article, published in the Guardian comment is free section, was entitled: ‘Extremists will not divide our armed forces’. Amongst other things he wrote:

As we witness this brutality in Woolwich, more than 600 Muslim personnel are deployed in Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere, contributing to our collective security. This attack is not connected to them, nor the armed forces, who have helped so many Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan – two theatres in which the principal beneficiaries of military intervention have been Muslim civilians and their governments. 

So in addition to contributing to a functioning diverse and cohesive military, he claimed, Muslim soldiers can also perform useful security functions while they are at it – symbolically as well as practically in terms of culture and language.

Amin’s pitch, overtly politicised by virtue of the fact that he is a Tory parliamentary candidate, was subsequently reiterated in an interview in the Independent. Under the headline: “Terror in Woolwich – a soldier’s tale: UK Muslims – your country needs you” he said:

The Prophet Mohamed said: ‘Love for one’s nation is part of faith’; ‘Who serves a people is the best of them’, and that ‘the Muslim is the one from whose hands and tongue others are safe’. The motto of Sandhurst is ‘Serve to Lead’. These are all British values and Islamic values,” he says.

Having left the army in April he is now free to claim that in his last deployment in Afghanistan in 2012 he acted as “a strategist advising US generals on conflict termination strategy through civil society engagement and empowerment”.

So how did that go? Clearly the mundane practice of “diversity” in this secretive and defensive institution entails something more than vague notions of inclusion and representativeness.

While there are indeed important things to say about this, there are underlying questions about how and why the military has come to dominate national public life, and why military service now carries such weight as a profession unlike any other.

This short piece below briefly outlines the significance of Muslims serving in the British military today. (However, it summarises a much longer discussion in the book which looks at racism inside the armed forces as well as the the concept of “militarised multiculture”.)

Muslims and Military Service

In 2006 Jabron Hashmi, 24, became the first British Muslim soldier to die in Afghanistan. His older brother, Zeeshan, who had also worked in the British Army, said at the time: ‘Jabron was a committed soldier and a committed Muslim. He was fiercely proud of his Islamic background and he was equally proud of being British and was very proud to live in Britain.’

The death in service of this avowedly Muslim patriot was acknowledged as a significant event at the highest levels. The following year members of Hashmi’s family, who lived in Birmingham and were originally from Pakistan, were asked to lay the foundation stone for the new National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. However, although Jabron’s death was commemorated as a form of sacrifice for the nation, it was also perceived as an act of betrayal by many other Muslims.

In a BBC report entitled ‘UK’s Muslim soldiers “fighting extremists not Muslims”’, Zeeshan Hashmi subsequently revealed that, following Jabron’s death, the family had received many letters from ‘well-wishers of all faith and backgrounds’, which had a great source of comfort. But they had also experienced hostility on the grounds that Jabron was considered a traitor.

These divergent responses help to illustrate why the figure of the Muslim performing military service is so significant. At one extreme, as a British soldier, Jabron Hashmi was hailed as a hero who gave his life for his country. For others, as a Muslim, he was accused of betraying his faith by fighting in a war that demonised Islam as the enemy of western civilisation. Yet it is not often that we hear about the experience of minorities, particularly those who are Muslims, who decide to work in the armed forces.

The most recent statistics published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) indicate that there are 650 Muslims serving in the UK armed services.[ii] Of these, 550 are in the British Army, constituting 0.5% of the total. In common with other faith groups, Muslim servicemen and women maintain a network of mutual support known as the Armed Forces Muslim Association (AFMA). So what does this tell us about the conditions of diversity in the army?

A modern multicultural military?

Within the past decade the MoD has been able to claim that, in terms of numbers, the proportion of black and minority ethnic personnel in all three services has risen from just over one per cent to more than seven per cent. In the British Army, the figure currently hovers around ten per cent.

This rise can partly be explained by the fact that residency regulations for Commonwealth citizens were dropped in 1998, partly in response to a documented levels of racism and the virtual absence of diversity in the workforce. Today, two thirds of BME personnel are classified as ‘foreign and Commonwealth’, and this figure does not include Gurkhas who are recruited from Nepal.[iii] The employment of soldiers from outside the UK has had a significant impact on the institution’s progression towards becoming a multicultural  (and multi-faith) employer. But this process of modernisation has also been mandated by law.

In 2003 the religion and belief elements of the European Employment Framework Directive were incorporated into the UK Employment Equality Regulations. Two years later the appointment of Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu chaplains replaced a system whereby religious leaders were engaged simply as advisers. For Muslims, as for other faith groups, this reform meant the possibility of a support network for individuals scattered across the institution.

Diversity as a martial asset

When Imam Asim Hafiz took up the post of first Muslim chaplain in 2005, it was unclear how many Muslims were serving since comprehensive statistics were only collected from 2007. By 2009, there were 500 Muslims in the regular armed forces. Over four hundred of these were in the army, and a significant proportion were citizens of countries such as The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan. It was at this point that AFMA was set up with the licence to explore the wider issue of Muslims serving in the military.

In the first newsletter, Imam Hafiz explained how the group hoped to persuade civilians about the significance of their work:

“Unfortunately there is a huge … ignorance in some parts of the Muslim community and I hope that AFMA will be able to bridge the gap between the Armed Forces and the Muslim community and be a reminder that HM Forces are as integral to British society as are other British institutions such as the Police Force, the fire service and the NHS that are here to serve this nation as whole including the Muslim community.”[iv]

The Imam was supported by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in his expressed aims to educate the Muslim community about the opportunities provided by military service. The MCB issued a report entitled Remembering the Brave: The Muslim Contribution to Britain’s Armed Forces in which they confront the issue, not just of ignorance about what it might mean to serve in the military, but also the depth of hostility towards the government’s foreign policy. The report asserts that ‘Loyalty does not mean the suspension of our critical faculties and failure to question our contested national engagements.’[v]

In an oblique reference to documented war crimes, such as the murder of civilian Baha Mousa in September 2003, committed by British soldiers in Iraq, the report ventures into more controversial territory: ‘We should ensure that the actions of a few does not diminish the overall expectations of our armed forces to abide by international laws of war and uphold fundamental human rights.’

While these arguments are addressed to UK citizens at home, the organization of Muslims inside the armed forces has been acknowledged by sections of the military leadership too. In 2009 the then Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, the first patron of the AFMA, commented publicly that Britain ‘had a commitment to … all those Muslims with whom we have a natural identity, given our own core values reflect very strongly to those of Muslim faith.[vi]

The raised profile of Muslim personnel – including the Imam – has also been utilised as a strategic asset in Afghanistan. This could be seen in news reports emphasising the participation of Muslims, whether joining forces with Afghan security personnel to celebrate Eid or acting as intermediaries with Afghan civilians.[vii] Seen in this light, the pragmatic tools of counter-insurgency warfare intersect with the symbolic aspects of soldiering on the domestic front.

 

[i] Armed Forces Muslim Association see http://www.afma.org.uk

[ii] UK Defence Statistics, April 2012. Chapter 2. Personnel. Table 2.12 Strength of UK Regular Forces by Service and religion, at 1 April each year. Defence Analytical Services Agency.

[iii] Ministry of Defence. Biannual Diversity Dashboard. 01 October 2012.

Section 2 – Ethnic origin and nationality representation of UK Regular Forces by Service.

[iv] Imam Asim Hafiz, ‘The love of your country is part of your faith’. AFMA Newsletter, July 2010, p. 7.

[v] ‘The Armed Forces reflecting Modern Britain: the Muslim contribution today’ in Remembering the Brave: The Muslim Contribution to Britain’s Armed Forces. A special report by the Muslim Council of Britain. (2009-2010 – Not dated), p. 9.

[vi] In the same interview Richards also said, ‘It is very important for the Muslim community to be exposed to an alternative view as it is for the rest of the nation. The Taliban kill many more Muslims than we do.’

[vii] See, for example: On November 16 2010 the Muslim chaplain gave a sermon to a multi-national congregation in the festival of Eid ul Adha in conjunction with the Imam of the local 205 Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA). A lengthy report in the MoD’s Defence News site revealed that there were 600 Muslims present, including representatives from across ISAF military forces, defence contractors and civilian workers as well as ‘local Afghans’.  The occasion was hailed as a reflection of ‘the united relationship’ between ISAF and the Afghan National Army (MoD, Defence News, 2012).

 

Keeping up Numbers

In my last column for openDemocracy I asked how the recent history of war has altered the social and cultural mechanisms that propel young people towards a military career. This question relates not just to the future representation of military work – whether in video games or new ads on TV and the internet – but also to the issue of whether the armed forces should broadly represent the society which they are supposed to defend.

It’s strange to think that when I started researching Military Migrants in 2008, there was a British Army recruiting office on the Strand, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square. This was the main port of call for Commonwealth applicants and therefore one of the first destinations for my research. I carried out one of my earliest interviews there, meeting some of the officers who had been leading the overseas pre-selection teams to the Caribbean and Fiji.

That office closed a while ago, but I often think about it as a place where so many potential migrant-recruits would have visited, unnoticed by all the tourists and commuters scurrying past as they made their momentous decision to open the door and begin the process.

Today one of the latest developments in the UK is that the recruitment of Britain’s military workforce, employed on a volunteer basis since 1960, has been outsourced to Capita. For the next ten years the business of attracting new soldiers to the profession will be managed by a private corporation. This is supposed to save money and resources although it will inevitably change local patterns of recruiting as more offices are closed.

In a recent interview Phillip Hammond, the defence secretary, revealed some of the ways the MoD have been planning for the future. Hammond said: ‘Many people in Britain will regard the end of combat in Afghanistan as a very good news story, but for many young men and women joining the Armed Forces, the lure of operations is a big recruiting sergeant and we have to think how we are going to replace the excitement of operations for them with equally stimulating training and exercising.’

He was photographed in Norway as he chatted to marines carrying out one such exercise in an Arctic training camp. Dressed all in white, the men appeared to be demonstrating how they would fire rifles while simultaneously balancing on skis.

But while the MoD worry about how to make military work look more exciting – in this case, like extreme sports with guns – it’s important to hold the armed forces to account as a public institution at home.

As Military Migrants has documented, the political and legal pressure to enforce equality and diversity in the British Army over the past fifteen years has had predictably uneven results. In the concluding section I confirmed the fact that after more than a decade of attempts to diversify the workforce, the level of UK born minority ethnic personnel was still only one third of the total figure for all ethnic minorities in the army.

There’s lots more to say here, but in the meantime I’ve been looking at the figures for different nationalities across all services in 2011 and 2012. Here’s a brief tally of increased  and reduced numbers among those nationalities currently well represented in the army  – which has the highest proportion of Irish and Commonwealth citizens:

Trained soldiers                        2011                        2012

Total FCs                                    7150                        7120

Bangladeshi                                     0                            10

Citizens of Fiji                              2100                        2060

Cameroonian                                 60                            70

Gambian                                       240                          280

Ghanaian                                      800                          790

Irish                                               280                          330

Jamaican                                      440                          410

Kenyan                                         190                           210

Malawian                                      220                          230

Nigerian                                       170                          180

South African                               790                          770

St Lucian                                      270                          260

Vincentian                                    330                          320

Zimbabwean                               360                          320

Nepalese                                     460                          520*

Unknown                                       20                            10

*Nepalese soldiers (Gurkhas) who have served more than four years are now entitled to apply for UK citizenship. When they become UK citizens they must transfer to the British Army as they are no longer permitted to serve as Gurkhas.

As the redundancies start to take effect in terms of overall numbers we will monitor the statistics – available through the Defence Analytical Service Agency (DASA) – to test the MoD’s commitment to representing multicultural Britain. It is evident that attention is currently focused more on gender than ethnicity, but in demographic terms, young minority ethnic citizens constitute a valuable pool of potential recruits.

Harry’s old game

Leaving aside the implications of what Harry Wales actually said on his return from Afghanistan, the publicity his comments have generated have, once again, pointed to aspects of military work that are often hidden in the carefully managed Newspeak about life in the armed forces.

Everyone remembers the Las Vegas pictures earlier in the summer and his sporting of a Nazi armband when he was in his teens. This is an extract from Military MIgrants recalling what happened when the young ‘warrior-prince‘ was heard calling his fellow officer a ‘Paki’.

From chapter 5, Keeping the Faith.

A royal scandal           

In January 2009 the News of the World published a story based on a leaked video diary made by Prince Harry while training at Sandhurst. The paper revealed that Harry had referred to his fellow officer cadet, Ahmed Raza Khan, as ‘our little Paki friend, Ahmed’ and told a friend wearing a camouflaged hood that he looked like a ‘raghead.’

When celebrities or public figures are caught being racist or anti-semitic on camera their employers are normally obliged to act swiftly to distance themselves or risk damage to their brand by association. Whether the culprit works for the BBC, a fashion house or even the government, he or she faces public shaming in the national media in a show of practised outrage that has its own momentum. Since he was a member of the royal family, the choice of words used by the prince might be thought to reflect negatively on the institution of the monarchy itself.

In addition, Harry was not merely a soldier when he made the video, he was also in the process of training to become an officer. When the story broke he was working as a junior manager charged with responsibility to set an example. As well as his family, he had managed to drag his employer into the spotlight of negative publicity.

The fact that it was a uniformed prince caught uttering such casually racist terms meant that the monarchy, the government and the armed forces were obliged to take a stand on the limits of acceptable speech. In other words, the British military ethos stood in danger of being compromised if there was no official criticism of the prince’s remarks. In the event, Harry’s behaviour was more readily dismissed by his family as a youthful indiscretion as the incident had occurred three years earlier.

The quick apology issued by St James’ Palace also sought to condone the use of the term, ‘Paki’, stressing that it was a ‘nickname about a very popular member of the platoon’, and ‘used without malice’.

By the time the video diary was leaked, Prince Harry, who had once caused a scandal by attending a fancy dress party in Nazi uniform, was already on the road to rehabilitation after his stint in Helmand Province had been revealed to the world’s attendant media. At least, this was the basis on which Prime Minister Gordon Brown was ready to downplay the incident. ‘I think the British people are good enough to give someone who has actually been a role model for young people … the benefit of the doubt,’ he said.

Cabinet minister John Denham gave him a qualified knuckle rap, saying: ‘This sort of language can be seen as offensive, is offensive, is gradually going out of use in our society, and he’s apologised for it.’ The opposition also took the opportunity to criticise Harry’s use of language. From the sidelines, Tory leader David Cameron it was ‘completely unacceptable’ and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the comment had caused ‘considerable offence.’

The Daily Mail was less ready to be forgiving, saying that Harry’s apology was insufficient for his ‘incredible crassness’ especially since Khan, an award-winning cadet at Sandhurst, by then was serving in the Pakistan Army where he had a ‘captain’s role in the war on terror’. Seen in this context, Harry’s use of the racist terms ‘Paki’ and ‘raghead’ had more severe implications than a casual example of army banter.

It represented an example of behaviour that could, in theory, lead to far more serious breach of the law if it was not publicly condemned. Pakistan was one of the UK’s strategic allies in the global counter-insurgency and this was a potential blow for the cause of defence diplomacy, an aspect of foreign policy in which the RMAS plays a pivotal role.

The episode, trivial in some lights yet potentially explosive, can be made useful precisely because it brought all these issues together: the British military ethos, defence diplomacy, racism directed at Muslims. In the next chapter we look at the harm that racism does inside the organization.

How far have the reforms ushered in by a commitment to cultural diversity managed to create an environment where abuse and discrimination are confronted, not for reasons of political correctness but as obstacles to functional working relationships?



 

Beards and bearskins

A clip from The Sun on 12.12.12

The image of a Sikh soldier used to illustrate the increasing diversity of British society this week ought not to pass without comment. The turbaned Scots Guardsman Jatenderpal Singh Bhullar was photographed both on his own and with his colleagues in their trademark bearskins in a carefully placed intervention intended to demonstrate two crucial points: first, that the UK has successfully weathered the integration of postcolonial minorities into its most symbolic institutions; secondly, that faith and culture are no barrier to inclusion within the armed forces themselves.

The bearskin headgear worn by troops in ceremonial dress attending to the Queen is, along with black taxis, double decker buses and punks, one of the chief emblems of brand UK. The scarlet coat, gold braids and tall black fluffy hat are instantly recognizable as British ‘tradition’, nectar to the tourists who flock to the capital the whole year round. The striking visual image of a dark-skinned face under the iconic black fur makes it an obvious opportunity for showcasing London’s happy multicultural face.

But Gdsmn Bhullar is not a member of the elite Household Cavalry normally associated with this role, which explains why he is wearing a long grey overcoat and not the red jacket. As a member of the Scots Guards he belongs to a regular infantry regiment, the only difference being that as part of his training he would be required to carry out public duties as a guard at Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.

While there are several black soldiers in the Household Cavalry who could have been photographed to illustrate Britain’s modern military, the key details in this latest version of militarized multiculture are not skin colour, but the turban and the beard.

The fact that these items are on show in army uniform, in whatever role or regiment, speak less of a natural process of enlightenment than the effect of progressive laws on discrimination. There is a chapter in Military Migrants that documents this process. The Employment Equality Regulations, which came into force in December 2003, incorporated the religion and belief elements of the European Employment Framework Directive into UK legislation. The ‘Guide on Religion and Belief’ published by the Ministry of Defence explained that this new legal obligation made it unlawful to discriminate against personnel on the grounds of religion or belief:

“The Armed Forces and MOD Civil Service have been practising policies that respect individuals’ religion or belief for some time. However, it is important to understand that, where in the past MOD as a matter of policy aimed not to discriminate, the new Regulations make discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief unlawful and give individuals a right to bring Employment Tribunal claims for breaches of the Regulations.”

This step towards becoming an official multi-faith employer was thus mandated by law, reflecting the extent to which, as a national institution, the armed forces were simply conforming to an expanded HR agenda and the demands of a corporate multiculturalist script. The fact that a soldier can wear a turban is a sign of the successful campaigns by Indian bus conductors and drivers in the 1960s, at least two generations ago. It ought not to be front page news in 2012.

But there is another aspect of this recent history that cannot be explained in such simple terms. Young men and women of South Asian descent in the UK form an important pool for army recruiters for demographic reasons alone. There has been a great deal of time and resources spent on targeting gurdwaras and mosques in an attempt to encourage communities to see the armed forces as a respectable and attractive profession. This is where it gets contentious.

A recent video made specially for the recruitment of young Sikhs places great emphasis on the martial tradition of Sikhs in the British Empire up to the end of WW2. Young would-be recruits are shown round Sandhurst by a Sikh officer who proudly points out the artifacts and memorials to the British Indian Army, indicating that membership of the UK armed forces is part of their ethno-cultural heritage.

Historically Punjabi Muslims played a parallel role in the British Indian Army, which was famously run on ethnically divided lines after the Uprising in 1857. But it is hard to imagine a recruiting pitch aimed at young Muslims stressing their military heritage in the same way. For British Muslims there is unease at the way Sikhs are singled out for their military prowess with the implication that other ethno-cultural groups from South Asia who took part in Europe’s global conflicts were not appreciated or valued to the same extent.

The young Sikh guardsman in his ill-fitting overcoat does not provide proof of the successful integration of Britain’s postcolonial settlers. Instead he offers a reminder of the country’s imperial heritage which continues to transmit divisive and deep-running conflicts into the heart of contemporary political and cultural life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The citizenship predicament of Britain’s military migrants

Should Britain’s serving and former soldiers from Commonwealth countries be granted UK citizenship as a reward for their military service? Their status as foreign nationals within the armed forces means that they embody a stark contradiction between the soldier as hero and the migrant as unwanted scrounger.

This week will see a significant change in immigration rules which will grant Commonwealth soldiers a new exemption. Following extensive media interest over the last three months, and pressure from Veterans Aid, the largest charity dealing with ex-servicemen and women in crisis, the UK Borders Agency has agreed to relax the ‘good character’ qualification required for applications for citizenship by serving or former military personnel.

According to existing regulations, all applicants seeking UK citizenship are required to provide details of any civil proceedings which have resulted in a court order against them. They must also supply details of all unspent criminal convictions, including road traffic offences but not fixed penalty notices, and all drink-driving offences. For those who have worked in the military, this also includes offences incurred as a result of internal disciplinary hearings.

The Home Office will present proposals to parliament to the effect that those who are serving in the armed forces and who have had minor convictions, will be given leave to remain in the UK.

This decision is buried deep within the statement given by Theresa May to the House of Commons. This is the relevant change:

(it will) introduce a limited leave ‘route’ for foreign and Commonwealth ex-Armed Forces personnel who fail to qualify for indefinite leave or citizenship because of a relatively minor conviction

This announcement coincides with a ‘damning report’ compiled by a serving officer which will inform the Defence Select Committee that the army’s internal systems for handling complaints and disciplinary hearings are virtually ‘kangaroo courts’. The report asserts that these “secret court” proceedings are also not compliant with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights because the commanding officer acts as judge, prosecutor and juror. In other words, the internal disciplinary system is also likely to act as a deterrent to individuals making complaints, particularly if they concern discriminatory or abusive treatment by superiors.

These findings are especially relevant because some former Commonwealth soldiers have found that convictions on their military records, which were not fully investigated at the time of the alleged offence, have been used as a reason to dismiss their applications for settlement.

Citizens from Commonwealth countries have been recruited into the armed forces in significant numbers since 1998. There are currently more than 7,500 in the armed forces as a whole, 5,000 of whom are serving in the army. Their presence has ensured that the army has managed to attain the requisite proportion of black and minority ethnic personnel, currently standing at 10.1%. Two thirds of these are not UK nationals.

Military leaders can now assert that the army is multicultural, multi-faith and fully committed to equality and diversity policies. While the recruitment of migrant workers has been welcomed in military terms, however, they continue to face many hurdles when it comes to family visas and settlement issues.

The first wave of recruits, largely from Fiji and Jamaica, discovered that they were not automatically eligible to apply for UK citizenship even after serving five years. Since their jobs required spending considerable time outside the country, particularly if they were based in Germany or Cyprus, they were not able to prove continuous residency in the UK. This was not changed until 2006 when the Home Office ruled that soldiers would be able to use time served abroad as part of their residency requirement.

In another example, until 2010, a child born during an overseas posting to serving personnel who were foreign nationals was not automatically eligible for UK citizenship. Inevitably this meant that children in some families might have different nationalities, depending on where they were born. Alternatively, expectant parents were forced to calculate how to spend their leave in the UK in the hope that their baby would arrive on British soil.

It took almost a decade for these anomalies to be formally identified as disadvantages for serving Commonwealth citizens and their families. During this time, the terms and conditions of service life for all military personnel had been placed under greater scrutiny as a result of the Iraq war. By 2007, the rising number of fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with endless reports of shocking housing conditions for military families and inadequate rehab facilities for those who were injured, pressured PM Brown’s government to take a more proactive stance.

In July 2008, a service command paper was published, partly in response to the Military Covenant campaign which had been launched the previous year. Entitled ‘The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans’ the report paid special attention to the ‘unique circumstances’ of foreign and Commonwealth personnel, particularly in the area of immigration and nationality issues.

This latest concession relating to the ‘good character’ requirement represents less of a reward for migrants serving in the British armed forces, and more of an ironing out of potential disadvantages produced by ever-tightening immigration control. Every single exemption has had to be fought for clause by clause, often years after being first brought to the Home Office’s attention. But this has been a hidden process, one that has received much less publicity than other interventions aimed at raising the overall profile of the armed forces.

As a result, the predicament of Britain’s military migrants – frequently referred to as “foreign troops” – has remained largely under the radar of public opinion. It is no surprise that many feel that they are ‘caught in the crossfire’ between these highly politicised positions: the heroic soldier and the abject immigrant.


Britain’s rainbow warriors?

On Sunday October 21st 2012 the Observer Review ran a double-page photo-spread feature entitled, ‘Ethnic minorities in the armed services – in pictures’. It showed ten pictures of individuals, each with a brief caption giving biographical details, motives for joining or memories of particular experiences. Three were in the air force, four in the navy and four in the army.

Here’s a quick recap of numbers of ethnic minorities in all three services, according to latest figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency.

In total, in 2012 the three services had 6.9%. This breaks down as follows: Royal Navy (3.5%)   British Army (9.9%)    RAF (2.0%).

Several aspects of this Observer feature are significant.

1. The timing of this news story is intriguing. The feature was introduced as a ‘minority report from the armed services’. The Observer reporter, Killian Fox, explained what had led 25 year-old photographer Kit Oates to seek permission from the MoD to take the portraits. Oates apparently told him:

“I wanted to highlight another facet of our multicultural society.”

At first, the MoD refused Oates access, but then in April there was a change of heart. Oates was allowed to spend four days in bases in the south of England photographing and ’interviewing’ recruits.

A comment by defence secretary Phillip Hammond that the armed services faced a challenge in recruiting minorities was cited as proof that the government was concerned. But there was no other mention of negative reports that might have prompted such concern.

By coincidence, Military Migrants, which documents the history of minority recruitment and institutional reform in some detail, was published on October 19.

2. None of the individuals represented in the gallery of pictures could possibly be described as recruits, a term normally used to refer to those in training. For a start, their ages ranged from 24 to 52. The three RAF representatives were all involved in recruiting and outreach. By no stretch of the imagination can a soldier who has been deployed in Afghanistan, or a navy chef who joined in 2001 and once served on the front line near Uzbekistan, be counted as trainees.

So why did the Observer report that Oates visited bases to record the views of recruits when the examples presented have clocked up years of service? The feature appears in an arts and media section probably unused to fine distinctions between a recruit and a recruiting commander. But then Oates himself places great emphasis on his subjects’ ethnic heritage as a factor in their decision to join the UK military.

3. One explanation for the army’s greater diversity is that it has recruited far more Commonwealth personnel. This is not made explicit, although Oates is quoted as saying, ‘I was interested in recruits who might not have been born here, or whose parents weren’t, but who have decided to serve in the armed forces in this country.’

Each caption gives information about country of birth, or cultural heritage of each person. Mention of the Commonwealth is conspicuous by its absence.

For example, Navy Logistics Manager Kerwin Romeo was born in St Vincent, which is described as ‘a former British colony in the Caribbean’. This seems an odd way to refer to a country that has been independent for more than 30 years.

4. Read together, the gallery of military minorities presents a coherent, united front. None of them reported having faced any problems, and only one mentioned the word racism.

Nicole Dunkley, RAF outreach officer who was born in Jamaica, commented, ‘About 5% of the force at RAF Northolt are ethnic minorities. After nine years in the RAF, I’ve never encountered any abuse. As far I’ve known it’s zero-tolerance.’

Priyum Patel, an army medic, was equally forthright. ‘For me, being an ethnic minority in the army has not been an issue. People are more concerned with your ability to do your job, look after your troops and deliver the mission at hand. In this regard, the army is more inclusive than any other working environment I’ve previously experienced.’

Another soldier, an infantryman aged 26, declared that, ‘Being mixed race and going into the army, racism did cross my mind a little bit. As I’ve always lived in London I’ve never thought about it too much. There’s a lot of diversity in the army, but we all gel quite well.’

5. One more thing: the piece also illustrates one of the final themes of Military Migrants: the emergence of militarized multiculture. This is the term I use to argue that diversity now has a value to the armed forces, and not just in the context of domestic politics. More recently, UK military leaders have accepted that diversity – whether cultural, religious or linguistic – is valuable in operations as well. Hence the inclusion of this view, articulated by RAF recruiting officer Andy Rahaman:

‘it (diversity) can positively affect the way the military is perceived, particularly in countries such as Afghanistan. “We’ve got guys who speak Urdu and Farsi as their first tongue and that’s certainly an advantage. You can break down barriers a lot faster than a white guy who only speaks English. It makes life far easier.”’

 

I make these points to underline why this article is significant, in this form, in this location and at this time. Readers will surmise that there is no reason why ethnic minorities should be reluctant to join the armed services. As Rahaman says of racism: ‘It’s a thing of the past’.

A text-book example of how a well-placed, carefully-scripted narrative can supply enormously positive advertising for an extremely powerful institution.

Why is it always ‘the foreign legion’?

“British foreign legion trebles in a decade” asserts a Sun headline in September 2012. Using a Freedom of Information request, the paper found that ‘Those from overseas now top 12,000 — a new record and 12 per cent of the 101,290 full-time troops’.

The report followed a well-worn formula, familiar to those of us tracking similar articles – not always confined to the tabloids – in the British media since 2005. It goes like this:

  1.  A comment on the high numbers of migrants in the army
  2. Reference to Grenada-born Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, the most famous example.
  3. Note to the effect that: ‘fears have been voiced that the trend could dilute the army’s “Britishness”’.
  4. Observation from military chief/politician confirming this anxiety.
  5. Staunch rebuttal that there is any problem with numbers from another military chief and appreciative statement about the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers, both historically and now.
  6. End of story, with graphic illustrations of the above themes, including picture of black soldier in Afghanistan.

In this latest example, the Sun provided a helpful diagram which is actually quite useful in conveying where Britain’s migrant soldiers come from. 

Military MIgrants explains why the example of the French foreign legion is always wheeled out whenever the question of numbers of migrant soldiers is raised.

It describes how, in 2009, a cap of 15% Commonwealth soldiers was instituted in certain sections of the army in response to this ‘unease’ that there were ‘too many’ non-UK citizens accumulating in particular trades, such as logistics and dentistry. This measure had been on the cards for a few years but the Equality and Human Rights Commission was not prepared to sanction an overall quota. The cap has been in force since 2009.

A very British army?

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The British Army currently* employs over 6,000 men and women from Commonwealth countries. Without the presence of these migrant soldiers, heavily recruited since a regulation change in 1998, it would not have been possible to maintain continuous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Opening the ranks to Commonwealth citizens in their own countries was a response to the chronic shortage of suitable volunteers in the UK. It was also intended to redress the army’s failure to attract minority ethnic youth into its ranks. The organisation’s reputation for racism and bullying came to a head in the 1990s when the Commission for Racial Equality threatened to take legal action against the Ministry of Defence.

How has the presence of so many cultural minorities changed the army? Military leaders can now assert that the army is multicultural, multi-faith and fully committed to equality and diversity policies. But how would members of the public know if this was true? And why should we care about what happens in our national military organisations, especially if and when we are opposed to the wars that they are instructed to fight?

*On July 11th 2013 the MoD announced that it had reinstated the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth recruits. The ruling does not affect those who are currently serving although it will undoubtedly reduce the numbers of black and minority ethnic recruits. What will be the effects of this decision to stop recruiting non-UK citizens?

In conjunction with the bookMilitary Migrants: fighting for YOUR country, this website will provide a new space to explore these questions.