We must grant Commonwealth soldiers and their families the right to full British citizenship - Veterans Aid
CEO Veterans Aid Dr Hugh Milroy responds to Paul Sweeney MP’s call for equal citizenship rights for ‘second-class Commonwealth soldiers’
The relationship between ethics and pragmatism has always been an uneasy one – and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the UK Armed Forces’ ambivalent relationship with its Foreign and Commonwealth service personnel.
Parliamentarians serially highlight this issue - call for ‘justice’ and point out that these men and women, so vital to making up the strength of Britain’s Armed Forces, are considered invisible and expendable after discharge.
Consecutive groundswells of emotion surround single issue cases. Gurkhas and Windrush immigrants become briefly central to causes célèbres, but little changes . . . until another campaigner takes up cudgels on their behalf.
I welcome Paul Sweeney’s initiative, but feel obliged to point out that he is not the first to flag up this ethical anomaly. On 5th March, in this publication, I responded to Drew Hendry MP’s article regarding his constituent Dennis Omondi, a UK Army veteran from Botswana.
Members of the Commonwealth are frequently referred to as strategic partners; following the collapse in home recruiting in 2018 the Army took on 5,290 men and women from Foreign and Commonwealth nations. They represent 4.5% of the UK’s (still under-recruited!) Armed Forces. Mr Sweeney’s article expands on this.
Most of those Foreign and Commonwealth individuals are recruited into the infantry as frontline troops. Most are ‘other ranks’ – few become officers. Put bluntly, they are needed for operational reasons - to make up the numbers! In the crudest terms they could be regarded as cannon fodder; what the Oxford dictionary defines as “soldiers who are thought of not as people whose lives are important, but as material to be used up in war.”
Veterans Aid more than any other UK charity has seen the consequences of their post-discharge abandonment. Since 2007 we have dealt with around 700 cases, involving ex-servicemen and women from nearly 70 countries. Over the past 12 years my staff have dealt with cases of injustice, inhumanity and callous indifference to the plight of decent human beings caught up in the conflict between pragmatism and ethics. The letter of the law has been applied slowly and with brutal inflexibility to those Foreign and Commonwealth veterans seeking no more than to settle in the country they have served, with their families.
It is true that incremental changes have made settlement a little easier – for some. Veterans Aid played a significant and well-documented part in effecting theses changes.
Yet still these former ‘brothers in arms’ – many of whom struggle with English, the official language favoured by online application forms and the unintended consequences of failure to take timely action – continue to face punitive demands for money, stressful periods of uncertainty, separation from families and bureaucratic logjams.
I applaud and echo Paul Sweeney’s call. The very least we can do in recognition of their service is to grant them and their families the right to full British citizenship and bring true equality to all those who serve in our armed forces, regardless of their country of origin. I’m delighted that after all these years, we are no long fighting this injustice on our own!
FOOTNOTE: As I write this the Veterans Aid Ops Team are helping a ‘Jamaican’ veteran apply for compensation under the Windrush scheme. This 42-year-old father of five – who served for four years in the Royal Logistic Corps - came to the UK with his mother, at the age of two. In 2014 he lost his job after being advised that he did not have the right to live and work in the UK. For the last five years he has struggled financially, battled with depression and tried to make sense of why the country whose Armed Forces he served in could let this happen. He said this morning, “You feel like an outcast in your own community, like you don’t belong. It doesn’t matter where you are. You just feel shoved to one side and pretty useless really. It has impacted on all my family. I can cope, but on the occasions when I can’t cope I’ve wanted to hurt myself but, you know . . . . Veterans Aid have been brilliant!”