Britain is to allow citizens from all Commonwealth countries to join its armed forces — even if they have never lived in Britain. The new rules are aimed at tackling a recruitment crisis. But campaigners want clarity over the citizenship rights of the new recruits after they leave the services.
Touring Africa earlier this month, Prince Charles paid tribute to soldiers of the former Empire who fought for Britain.
Out of the empire came the Commonwealth — and it is from those countries that Britain is now looking to recruit.
The government says all roles and ranks will be open to citizens from all Commonwealth countries who are aged 18 or over. It’s aimed at plugging a gap in recruitment — with a shortfall in armed forces personnel estimated at over 8,000, says Paul Barnes, visiting fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
“It seems that they are not coming forward in the numbers that they used to. And with the gap opening in manning, we need to find a rapid fill. And that rapid fill is often best found from the Commonwealth,” he said.
Previously most Commonwealth recruits had to have lived in Britain for at least five years. That has now been dropped — and the armed forces hope to recruit an extra 1,350 people every year through the scheme. Barnes says they will bring added value.
“Commonwealth soldiers will come with a high level of education, and they will easily fit into those specialist roles that are more difficult. But also you gain a strength in terms of diversity, a strength in terms of diversity of view, in decision-making, in our perspective of the world, our cultural understanding,” he said.
Commonwealth recruits also qualify to become British residents after four years, or citizens after five years’ service — a major pull factor for signing up.
Doctor Hugh Milroy is CEO of Veterans Aid — which has supported dozens of former Commonwealth soldiers who struggled to gain citizenship.
“Under the old system, and I really do hope this has been picked up, you had no access to benefits, and you had no right to work. So in fact for many years, we were stopping people starving," he said. "My advice to anyone coming here to join the armed forces is, this is almost the first thing you want to deal with as soon as you arrive here and join the armed forces. Don’t wait till the end, because it takes so long to do.”
The British Ministry of Defense told VOA that citizenship requirements had not changed — and new Commonwealth recruits would have to meet the same criteria as before.