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.