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.

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.

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?

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.