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A post-imperial army

Commonwealth soldiers willing to die for Britain aren't rewarded with citizenship.

Johnson Beharry with the Queen
Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry meets the Queen in November 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)

In the capital this year Armistice Day will be marked by the scarlet illumination of the London Eye, with laser beams marking 11am like the hands of a clock. Yet despite attempts to keep the anniversary modern and meaningful to younger generations, the actual conditions of militarywork remain obscured by this type of patriotic symbolism.

It is a little known fact that the British Army currently employs more than 8,000 personnel from Commonwealth countries, not including former Gurkhas from Nepal. In 1998 the New Labour government removed the residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens and individual regiments
began to recruit from countries as far away as Fiji and Jamaica. Numbers increased over the decade, and in 2009 a cap of 15 per cent was placed
on those trades where levels threatened to rise above a level deemed appropriate for a “British” army.
 
Today there are approximately 2200 from Fiji, 890 from South Africa, 800 from Ghana and hundreds from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean.
Ostensibly recruited to meet shortfalls in voluntary recruitment through the 1990s, this ready source of “manpower” has meant that the armed forces
have been able to sustain adequate levels of recruitment throughout wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers of non UK nationals has also had a
significant impact on levels of ethnic minorities in the army, currently hovering around 9.9 per cent. Ten years ago this figure was likely to be
near 2 per cent, although statistics were not comprehensively collected at that time.
 
In November 2009 I interviewed four young recruits from the Caribbean who had flown over that week to complete the final selection process.
They had passed the basic tests in their home countries of Belize and St Lucia the previous year when the army’s “overseas pre-selection team”
was in residence. They had then waited many months before receiving the invitation to fly to London. We had watched the remembrance service in
Westminster Abbey on a large TV screen and discussed the impact of Britain’s imperial history on their countries and their families.
 
We observed the most celebrated Commonwealth soldier to date, then Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, VC, handing the wreath of poppies to the
Queen to place on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Originally a citizen of Grenada, Beharry would have passed through the same selection centre
in 2001 shortly before being sent to the infantry training centre in Yorkshire where these young recruits were bound as well. While on deployment in Al-Amarah, Iraq, in 2004 he distinguished himself by driving members of his unit to safety on two occasions when they came under heavy fire. He was awarded the Victoria Cross the following year, becoming the first living person to receive it since 1965 and certainly one of the youngest. He was 24 at the time.
 
Soldiers such as Beharry and the recruits I interviewed, who might otherwise be cast as ineligible skilled and unskilled migrants from outside the EU, are not automatically rewarded with citizenship as a condition of employment in the armed forces. Nor is their path to citizenship, should they wish to apply, significantly expedited by their readiness to kill and to die for Britain.
 
This past year has been an escalation in the number of cases where Commonwealth soldiers have been refused UK citizenship. The UK Borders
Authority maintain that criminal convictions and sentences imposed under military law affect immigration and nationality decisions, regardless of
the severity (or not) of the alleged offences. The Home Office is currently reviewing the criteria as a result of publicity gathered by the organisation Veterans’ Aid which deals with veterans in crisis.
 
As the Royal British Legion asks people to "stand shoulder to shoulder with those who serve”, it is worth recalling that the soldiers who are not UK citizens would, out of uniform, be regarded as unwelcome immigrants. However, this is not to argue the case that military work should be considered exceptional and that soldiers’ claims for settlement should be expedited.
 
The employment of migrant-soldiers with strong postcolonial ties to Britain challenges the “common sense” racism that delineates the boundaries of our political community by colour and concepts of indigeneity. The ratcheting up of anti-migrant policies by successive governments in order to earn the approval of the electorate reveals the hypocrisy, double standards and racism that are inherent in framing the war these military migrants are sent off to fight.
 
Vron Ware is a research fellow in the centre for citizenship, identities and governance (CCIG) and the centre for research in socio- cultural change (CReSC) at the Open University. Her book “Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country” has just been published by Palgrave.