A fair deal for Commonwealth families

People from the Commonwealth who come to the UK to join our armed forces often believe that they and their families will be able to live in the UK, only to find that strict immigration rules prevent this. New research by Dr Nick Caddick and Dr Catherine Pearson is helping to give them a better deal.

Britain’s military has a long history of recruiting from overseas – think, for example, of the volunteers from the Caribbean, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Indian subcontinent who served in both World Wars. But it is less well known that around 7% of current personnel fall into this category, many from the Commonwealth.

Often, a major incentive for joining is that they and their families will be able to live, and perhaps settle, in the UK. Only later do many discover that, in particular because of the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy towards immigration, this deal comes with serious conditions attached. For example, a ‘minimum income threshold’ prevents Commonwealth personnel from bringing a spouse to the UK until they are earning £18,600; that figure then rises for each of their children. A visa to settle permanently costs thousands more. Often, this is simply unaffordable.

This system can be exceptionally cruel. Families can end up being separated by the income threshold, while veterans who have potentially put their lives on the line for Britain sometimes find themselves facing deportation. Many feel betrayed. 'When you are a Commonwealth soldier, as soon as you leave, you have no rights, no thanks,' one Nigerian ex-serviceman told The Guardian in a recent interview.

“We have recruited these people into our Armed Forces. Should we really be penalising them with visa costs and restrictions?”

But at last, this may be changing, thanks partly to a study by Dr Nick Caddick and Dr Catherine Pearson, from our university’s Veterans and Families Institute for Military Social Research (VFI). Their work shows how the system is failing Commonwealth personnel, and how to improve it. Encouragingly, their recommendations are already being followed up by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

“We have recruited these people into our Armed Forces,” Caddick reflects. “Should we really be penalising them with visa costs and restrictions that potentially split their families?”

The study began because a collaboration of service charities and the VFI all wanted to get a clearer picture of how a system that already offers fairly extensive support to service personnel appeared to be failing Commonwealth members. Funding was acquired from the Forces in Mind Trust, which specialises in research with veterans.

The researchers undertook surveys and interviews with military charities, MoD staff, and the Army Families Federation (AFF), which has a small team dedicated to helping overseas families. Their report identifies several gaps and failings, and makes some bold recommendations. Most strikingly, it calls for the Home Office to acknowledge and address the cost of veterans’ immigration, and for an 'urgent review of the minimum income threshold'. Many charities, it found, cannot help veterans to find jobs or homes, because they cannot negotiate these costly and distressing immigration laws.

"There is a cohort within the British Armed Services here whom we appear simply to be failing."

Other recommendations include the need for both Commonwealth recruits and military welfare personnel to be given better information about the costs and rigours of settling in the UK. The report also proposes an incentivised savings plan, so that personnel can save towards future settlement during their service.

“It’s vital that we get the Home Office and MoD working together,” Catherine says. “There is a cohort within the UK Armed Services here whom we appear simply to be failing.”

The MoD, it turns out, agrees. Shortly after the report was published, Caddick and Pearson received a letter indicating that many of their recommendations are being put into practice. Among other measures, discussions have begun with the Home Office about relaxing immigration policy for veterans, funds found for an extra caseworker in the AFF, and credit union schemes set up to enable the incentivised savings plan.

“More needs to happen, but it’s a great start,” Nick says. “As it stands, some of these veterans exist in an ambiguous state. On the one hand they may be stigmatised as immigrants. But at the same time, they have served this country, and for many people that makes them heroes.”

Thanks to his and Catherine’s research, realisation seems to be growing that, whatever their status, these people deserve better than a hostile environment.

The VFI is now building on its research by working directly with Commonwealth families to understand in more detail the impact of immigration issues. This will provide crucial evidence to show how people’s lives are being affected by the current system, and help us push for change.

Military veterans research

The Veterans and Families Institute for Military Social Research carries out research, policy development and consultation on the impact of military service on veterans and their families. Our academics work across disciplines including sociology, psychology, social policy, education, social work, nursing and ethics. Visiting Fellows provide additional expertise in psychiatry, clinical psychology and criminal justice.

Access our expertise

If you’d like to find out more about how you can access our research expertise, please get in touch with Rana Zayadin, Partnerships Development Manager for our Faculty of Health, Education and Social Care, on 01245 683505.