If we want more foreign soldiers, we should stop deporting veterans

Sapper Hiri left the British army expecting to receive his UK citizenship. But the Home Office decided that as he’d once received a speeding fine, he needed to be removed from Britain.

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Yesterday’s announcement that the British army will take on more foreign recruits by removing a five-year residency requirement – meriting a Telegraph front page – was very welcome indeed.

However, as a long term observer of the British army, I was very surprised that it hadn’t already waived this restriction – to the point where when the New Statesman asked me to write this piece, I asked the editor “are you sure anything has actually changed?”

You see, throughout the era in which I knew the army well – first from my father’s service between the 1970s and the 2000s, then later extending through my own embedded journalism stints up until 2010 – there had always been loads of foreign-born servicemen.

In my father’s era, the joke even ran that the SAS was about 80 per cent Fijians. By the time I was swanning around Afghanistan, it still felt like every other person I met wasn’t British born; I definitely spoke with Botswanans, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Australians as well as “west Brits” (as Republic of Ireland recruits are known) and even a German. And, of course, Fijians – literally everyone in the British army will have served with at least one.

A quick check of the figures reveals my impressions weren’t far off: as late as 2009 around 10 per cent of troops were not born in the UK – with as many as 6-7 per cent of soldiers signing directly up to the army with no prior British residency –of whom around 2,000 were Fijians (making them the second largest group of foreign nationals in the army after Gurkhas). The army even used to regularly send recruitment teams to recruit directly in Fiji – the last flew out in 2007.

So what happened? How did we go, in such a short space of time, from welcoming foreigners who wanted to risk their lives to keep us safe to a situation in which we are trumpeting our generosity at letting them back in? Simply put, the rules changed as the public and governments became more and more hostile to immigration. In 2013, the Home Office decided to impose a restriction that foreigners wanting to serve in the army had to have lived in Britain for five years.

Recruitment, of course, slumped; anecdotally, a large number of people were turned away at a time when the army was crying out for recruits. We went from a situation where someone like Johnson Beharry could come to Britain and win the Victoria Cross, to a situation where he’d be asked to leave a recruitment office without even being considered. Too foreign to be brave, I suppose. It’s yet another consequence of the Cameron government’s lunatic “tens of thousands” net migration target – in the insane “hostile environment” quest to hit that number, every crackdown on the foreign born, no matter how vicious or stupid, was carried out.

What’s even worse is the way in which the Home office has preyed upon foreign veterans leaving the service. In echoes of the Windrush scandal, a huge number of these veterans have been targeted for removal and denied the citizenship they rightly felt they had earned.

A typical case would be that of Botswanan Sapper Poloko Hiri: having done multiple tours in combat zones as a bomb disposal expert, Sapper Hiri left the British military expecting to receive his citizenship, or at the very least permanent leave to remain in Britain. Instead, the Home Office decided that only soldiers of “good character” would be allowed to stay in the UK – in Hiri’s case, they decided that meant that as he’d received a speeding fine, he was the sort of undesirable who needed to be removed from Britain once he left the army.

Hiri’s case has a happy ending – supported by his regiment and the charity Veterans Aid, he was able to challenge the Home Office ruling and win his citizenship; after his experience, he currently practices law as an immigration barrister.

However, many were not as lucky as Hiri, especially those whose cases were less clean cut – for example, it’s relatively rare for young soldiers to serve without some minor infractions like fighting, and these minor disciplinary charges have been used by target-hunting bureaucrats to throw veterans out of the country.

Although we don’t know how many of these brave men have been slung out by the Home Office, I have heard dozens of stories like Hiri’s from regimental officer friends. And such is the sheer volume of requests for help recieved by Veterans Aid from those in similar situations to Hiri, that a staffer told me the charity has been forced to take steps “in order to prevent the charity becoming solely immigration focussed”. 

Employees now have the following statement on their emails:

NB: From 1 September 2016   Veterans Aid will no longer undertake new casework regarding Foreign and Commonwealth residency issues. We will however provide advice and signpost individuals to the many organisations who offer to deal with leave to remain applications.  VA exists to support former military personnel - not those currently serving in HM Armed Forces, or their dependents. Those experiencing, or anticipating, leave to remain issues ahead of discharge are reminded that they should raise concerns through their Chain of Command and consult publicly available guidelines. 

This is not to denigrate the work of Veterans Aid – you’d struggle to find any other charity that has done more for foreign and commonwealth veterans – but it underlines the scale of the betrayal perpetrated on these men.

So, well done to the MoD on ripping up these stupid rules and recruiting more foreign-born troops. But before we recruit more foreign soldiers, perhaps we should stop deporting our foreign veterans and do right by those the Home Office betrayed.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.