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.