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.