Vron Ware talks about her new book, which explores the peculiar role of military migrants who are lauded as heroes yet stigmatised as immigrants and foreigners.
First, a little background. Alternatively, jump straight to the interview.
Military migrants are an under-studied group, often overlooked in debates on immigration, citizenship, multiculturalism, national identity and war. Yet the British military employs over 8,000 service men and women from Commonwealth countries without whom it would have been impossible to maintain continuous deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soldiers have been recruited from outside Britain since 1998, when the need to address a military labour shortage and diversity its workforce was ripe. Subsequently, the military gained a reputation for racism and bullying which boiled over in the 1990s. The Commission for Racial Equality threatened legal action after allegations surfaced that soldiers had ‘tried to scrub a black trooper white’.
Today, however, military leaders outwardly trumpet the army’s multicultural, multi-faith workforce. But to what extent is this true?
Despite serving for the British country – that is being both willing to kill and be killed for the country – many migrant soldiers struggle to gain British citizenship. Consider the case of Ismeili Baleiwai. The Fijian solder, who had served 13 years in deployments such as Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, faced deportation after he was wrongly punished for fighting with another soldier. He returned his medals to the British monarchy.
In a letter addressed to Prince Charles Mr Baleiwai stated:
To be told you are not of ‘good character’ to be British or remain here was one of the saddest days of my life. Everything I worked for, the British values I believed in and fought for, were destroyed and dishonoured.
In November 2012, following a high-profile veteran-led campaign, the UKBA relaxed the rules barring foreign troops in British forces from UK settlement after facing minor disciplinary convictions, such as that of Mr Baleiwai.
In her new book, Vron Ware, a research fellow at the Open University, explores the anomaly that migrant soldiers are at once lauded as heroes but stigmatised as immigrants and foreigners.
Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country, published November 2012, draws on years of intimate access to garrisons, military recruitment procedures and ethnic minority soldiers and offers a beautifully nuanced view of today’s multicultural army.
What inspired you to write about migrants in the British military?
I’ve been interested in questions of national identity, racism and multiculturalism for many years now. In 2006-7 I happened to be doing research on the ways that “Britishness” was viewed among minorities in the UK and a number of other countries. Like thousands of others, I had been actively protesting against the Iraq war, but it was hard to know what else to do apart from demonstrating which felt totally ineffective.
In 2007 the artist Steve McQueen made a significant intervention by calling for stamps to be issued as a way of commemorating British soldiers who had died in Iraq. This had a big impact nationally, and made me curious about the possibility of investigating the military as an institution that most of us knew little about.
How did you approach researching your work?
I was lucky to meet a senior officer who talked openly to me about the problems facing Commonwealth soldiers. He invited me to come and see him, hoping that I would help draw public attention to the contribution of thousands of foreign nationals in the army. As migrants they were facing particular problems with immigration issues that the army was unable to solve on its own. It was the Home Office that was responsible for making any changes.
So with this officer’s help I was able to get a contract allowing me to do research on the question of Britishness inside the army. I was allowed full access to UK and non-UK nationals, the proviso being that I would let the army media relations people read the book before publishing.
I ended up spending over two years going round speaking to all sorts of people. During this time I discovered that circumstances were shifting continuously. For example, the financial crash took place just as I was starting and this affected recruitment. I could sense that policies and practices were changing as a result of external and internal factors. In addition to the interviews I had to monitor what was going on in the media as well as at institutional levels.
By and large, everyone was happy to talk as I asked them to sign a form guaranteeing anonymity. I think it would have been much more difficult to approach people on my own. But if you are at work doing something boring and your superior asks you to go and talk to a researcher about your problems, most people would find it a welcome opportunity to get things off their chest.
Of course I heard a lot of complaints but I also got a glimpse of what it was like to work in a military environment.
What are the main issues affecting military migrants today? Why and how should this change?
I would say that although racism continues to be an issue and there are problems of harassment and bullying in any institution, the main issue facing military migrants in the armed forces relates to immigration. Visas for family members are getting increasingly expensive, and this is something that UK-born soldiers don’t have to pay for, of course. Immigration law is really complex too, and army welfare officers have not had the training or experience to deal with this. Now it is made clear that people have to get their own legal advice but this is another expense. Every concession or exemption for military personnel has had to be fought for. The latest example was just two weeks ago when the UKBA announced that they would relax the rule regarding character for military applicants seeking settlement.
Is multiculturalism important for the military?
The last chapter of the book explores a new concept that I have called ‘militarised multiculture’.
My argument is that Britain’s military institutions have gradually come to realize the importance of having a diverse workforce, and the necessity of curbing racism inside the organization, right down to the smallest units of people.
This is because a visibly diverse army suggests that it is representative of Britain as a multicultural society. It is important for the organization to be able to recruit from many different demographic groups, especially minority ethnic youth which is a growing category. It is particularly important too that Muslims are represented in the army, for example, and that it is not seen as a force against Islam as some kind of enemy of the British state.
I would say that diversity is important in Afghanistan for similar reasons. The Imam, who is a civilian chaplain to the armed forces, plays an important role in demonstrating that British troops not only include Muslims (most of whom are Commonwealth migrants from west Africa incidentally) but also that Islam is respected as a faith alongside Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism etc.
All these factors contribute to what I call ‘militarised multiculture’. The presence of thousands of military migrants has largely made this feasible as they constitute 60% of ethnic minorities in the army.
Family issues are very important for many of our readers. Why did you decide to discuss families in Military Migrants?
I included a chapter on families because I felt that the views and experiences of partners, particularly women, were vital in gauging the organisation’s commitment to support Commonwealth soldiers. This is because, unlike many other places of work, the military have a specific commitment to what they call the service community. I met ‘army wives’ who in common with other migrants were finding it hard to get jobs as their qualifications were not recognized in the UK. Many felt isolated, but others were often critical of their own communities for not making more effort to meet people who were different from them.
I felt it was a really important aspect of the story because partners and families really feel the brunt of the work that the soldiers do – whether they are in Afghanistan or away on operations, or just working long hours.
Tell me about the book launch.
The book launch was a terrific event as it brought together colleagues, friends, acquaintances and I could finally explain what I had been doing. It was also good because my contact person in the army came and talked about the project as well. He had been responsible for guiding me through the institution, both suggesting whom I spoke to at senior level and facilitating contacts. He was himself responsible for diversity employment policies from 2007-2011, and I was able to track any changes that came about during that time. Most importantly, he explained why it was useful to the institution to have this research done, and I had the chance to talk about my own motives as well.
And, finally, tell me a little more about yourself. What are you doing now?
I have made a website specifically for the book so that I can post updates and news about any relevant developments. This is also linked to a facebook site called military migrants. It’s important these days to publicise your work as no one’s going to do it for you and using social media gives you a lot more options.
I am also writing a bi-monthly column for the online platform openDemocracy, looking at the whole question of militarization, not just in the UK but in other countries too. By this I mean the changing position of military organizations in public life as a result of perpetual war. This is a conversation that is relevant in so many countries these days, and we can only strengthen our opposition to war by sharing information and analysis.
Veterans Aid, the support charity for former military service people, have also actively supported the citizenship rights of non-British soldiers. Find out more about what they do online.