A breaking rule: partners under pressure

The effect of new rules on family migration into Britain is to leave thousands of marriages in a limbo of enforced separation, reports Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Claudia was supposed to come to my Chinese dinner a few Saturdays ago, but Chris, her English partner, arrived alone and said she’s back in Brazil applying for a spouse visa. "When is she coming back to London?", everyone asked. Chris looked anxious, shaking his head. “I have no idea. It could take months. I have sent them [the Home Office] all the required documents and told them about my income. We’ll wait and see.”

Claudia came to London to study English and work part-time as a nanny in the affluent London neighbourhood of St John’s Wood. She believes in earning her own way and had hoped to improve her opportunity for better-paid work by learning English. Barring differences in language, she felt able to interact well in society. She met Chris last summer. They became inseparable and soon began to plan a life together. In July 2012 they got married, with blessings from both sides of their families and friends.

At the same time of their wedding, a new set of government rules on family migration had been put into effect. These introduce a new minimum-income threshold of £18,600 for “sponsoring the settlement in the UK of a spouse or partner of non-EEA nationality” (that is, outside the European Economic Area, comprising thirty states across the continent); they extend the minimum probationary period for settlement from two years to five; and they allow adult and elderly dependents to settle only where they can prove their illness or disability. These policies are designed to keep out tens of thousands of migrants whose spouses and families are British. The Home Office estimates that up to 18,500 people every year will be prevented from coming to join their spouses here. Over 15,000 couples per year will be kept apart as a result.

The government says the new minimum income requirement is predicted to reduce annual family visa grants by 15,700. A total of 47,300 family visas were granted in 2012. While the government concerns itself with statistics, it is people’s lives that these policies are wrecking.

Chris says: “We’ve been apart since 3 October. It is frustrating being kept apart while waiting the requisite 12-24 weeks for the visa application to be processed. The process is completely opaque to us, leaving us with no idea of what state the application is in.”

But Chris believes they will eventually be reunited because he has a job that pays more than the required income level. Those who suffer most from the new rules are the young, low-income families, including members of ethnic-minority communities.
Ruth Grove-White, policy director at the Migrant Rights Network, says: “We are already beginning to see the devastating effects that the new policy has had, especially among young couples, lower-earners including those living and working outside London and couples within Asian communities.”

A forced separation

Laura is a 25-year-old UK citizen living in Scotland and married to Mohamed, a 28-year-old Egyptian. They have been together for four years and married for two. Laura is a graduate in biomedical science and her husband in business management. She says: “I have worked very hard for many years towards a professional career in science. My plan has always been to stay and build a life in the UK… I currently have a permanent position as a laboratory scientist... My salary is at the upper end of those in similar positions (early years) in Edinburgh. Yet my salary does not quite meet the income requirement to sponsor my husband to settle in the UK.”

“I found out about the new rules two days after my husband returned to Egypt after his visit. I cannot emphasise how upset I was and still am about the rules changes. I am currently on anti-depressants because of this situation. Every time we appear to meet the requirements, UKBA [the UK Border Agency] change the rules again!”

“I have had to take on a second job working at Pizza Hut to meet the new income requirement to sponsor my husband. I manage to save £600+ every month which goes towards flights for us to see each other, saving for the ever increasing spouse visa and paying off student debt. I have more than enough money left at the end of the month to support my husband were he allowed to join me in the UK. It is very frustrating that the government has not taken age/gender/regional salary ranges into account. My husband was also offered a job here in the UK. But his prospective income is not taken into account, which makes no sense to me.”

"We have the money for the visa saved in the bank and now must wait six months before we can apply. I live in fear that I lose one of my jobs before the six months, the length of time I must earn £18,600, is up. If this were to happen, the six months would start again once I found another job, which could take an age in the current climate.”

“This situation is the first and last thing I think about daily and is constantly on my mind every day. Not only does it upset my husband and I, our families are also affected… My family live in fear that I will be forced to move to Egypt not being able to visit them and them not being able to afford visiting me were I forced to move to Egypt. I want to start a family in the near future, having cysts on my ovaries, I fear this may not be an option if I were made to wait for years. I do not want to be forced to start a family in Egypt. I have a degree and a good job with great prospects here in the UK. Were I forced to move to Egypt, everything I have ever worked towards would be taken away.”

“I do not speak fluent Arabic, meaning it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, especially in my field of science. Additionally, my husband is from a relatively poor family - and that is by Egyptian standards. My husband only earns around £250 per month in Egypt. Healthcare would be a problem, were I to move there, as the salary I would earn in Egypt would almost certainly not cover it. I would also never be able to afford flights to visit my family in the UK. My children would be forced to have a very poor education as I would not be able to afford to send them to a good school. Children in the UK benefit from having access to a good education.”

“During the long months of separation between visits to see each other, my husband and I speak every single night via Skype. But this situation has cause strain on our marriage. I now have to work two jobs meaning I am extremely tired and cannot speak to my husband for as long as we could before. When we do speak, we seem to be worrying and talking about the situation regarding the new rules. Many nights are spent in complete tears hoping that one day we are allowed to live happily as husband and wife.”

“We are petrified that the government continue to change the criteria to obtain a settlement visa. Since we have been together, the visa fees have increased several times, the English test was implemented - with a new English test set to be implemented in October 2013, along with many other rule changes. I cannot believe the UK government are discriminating against its own citizens, yet EU citizen have far more flexible/easy rules to bring their spouse into the UK. All I want is to be treated equally and not be treated as second class in my own country.”

“In addition to the upset the new rules have caused us, we have the complete heartache of having to part at the end of our visits to see each other. This is one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. Thankfully our marriage is very strong and this situation will never make us separate. One way or another, one day, we will live together as husband and wife should and have the family we deserve.”

The threshold effect

Declan, from north Wales, and Yuen-Man, from Hong Kong, met in September 2010 while they were both studying for undergraduate degrees in psychology at Bangor University. They are currently studying for their masters, and are due to finish in September 2013. Declan says: “Our plan after we graduated was to get married and live together here in north Wales, so we could stay close to my family, my friends, and my home. We are very happy in Bangor. Our intention was that we would both look for work in the local area, and support ourselves through our joint income after we got married.”

“The new rules have completely changed our plans for the future. Jobs that pay above £18,600 are hard to come by in my area; realistically the best way to achieve that kind of salary here is to begin on a lower pay scale then work your way up. I could easily attain work around the £15,000 area, and I could easily support both of us living here on that kind of wage.”

“The new rules put a lot of pressure on me - because unless I am able to get a job that pays above £18,600 as soon as I finish my masters, then we won't be able to live together in the UK (my home). I've already applied for about fifteen graduate schemes, and am resigned to accept that in order for me to be able to satisfy these new rules, I am going to have to relocate to a major UK city, leave my family and my friends, and leave my hometown. I feel that I have been forced to pursue this option - which is unfair - why should the government be allowed to decide how much I need to take care of myself and my future wife? Do they have access to my monthly outgoings? Do they know what my living costs are?”

“The rules are also frustrating, because under the new guidelines, even if I do manage to find work above the £18,600 threshold, I have to earn that wage for six months before she can apply for a spouse visa. This means that even if I jump through all their hoops, and relocate to find work, for those six months, we won't be able to be together, and we'll have to waste more money paying for flights back and forwards to China, just because the government doesn't think that I deserve to make a life here with the woman I love. It also puts my girlfriend's life 'on hold' in a way, because for those six months she will not be able to look for work here...”

Oxford University’s Migration Observatory estimated in June 2012 that 47% of the UK working population would be unable to meet the new income threshold for sponsoring a non-EEA spouse or partner. Declan strongly feels that £18,600 is an arbitrary, unfair and unrealistic figure to expect people to earn.

“66% of people in the UK have a lower income than £18,600. This means that the majority of people in the UK would not be able to marry a non-EU partner and be allowed to live together in this country. In fact, £14,900 is the average wage in the UK for a single adult… Clearly, (and unsurprisingly), this conservative-liberal coalition government is making rules with no consideration to the majority of the UK population, or any understanding of how most of the people in the UK live their lives.”

The social damage

Tens of thousands of others are being affected by the rules. Some have united to campaign against them, such as the group "Brit Cits: Unite Families - Fight For Love" (UFFFL). Steven Green, on behalf of the group, says that Britons are being discriminated against, and encourage those affected to take action. The group says: “Please allow us to be real families, and not forced into being ‘Skype’ families.”

Among them is Andy in Somerset, western England, who has been forced to become a single parent to his two infant children because - despite his qualifications and experience - he couldn’t find a job paying the new requirement earnings of £18,600 per year. Molly, his wife, is Chinese. During her last visit, Andy wrote to his MP, David Laws, asking if there was any way to help extend Molly’s stay, because Andy stood more chance of finding a high-paying job if she were here looking after the children. David Laws did not reply, and so Molly returned to China, rather than overstay her visa. Two weeks later, Andy received a letter from Mark Harper, minister for immigration, claiming that Molly had “attempted to deceive the UKBA” by visiting her husband and children. This is because, apparently, she should have applied for a "spouse visa" rather than a "visitor visa". This alleged deception means that she cannot visit the UK for ten years.

Andy finally got a job that meets the threshold, making the couple believe they should qualify to begin the application process for a spouse visa. By this time the family will have spent nearly eight months apart. The children talk to their mother on Skype and begin to address her as “computer mum”. They have already stopped attempting to speak Chinese and it breaks Andy’s heart to see that. He’s exhausted and desperately sad, yet somehow finds the energy to stay strong. “I miss my wife so much and feel so heartbroken for her having to explain to friends, family, neighbours and colleagues, why she cannot be with her loving husband and sweet little boys. She’s so brave, so patient and trusting that someday we’ll be reunited. I’m so very proud of her.”

The Migrant Rights Network says that these family migration rules are a major assault on family life for British people and migrants alike. An inquiry launched by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration on 20 November 2012 is taking evidence on the impact of these immigration rules on individuals and communities across the UK. In particular, the inquiry is looking at the £18,600 requirement.

Jan Brulc, the MRG's spokeswoman, says the new rules will undermine wider integration. “As a diverse and internationally connected society, the government should be taking an approach which facilitates, rather than prevents, families from building an integrated, secure life in the UK.”

In east London where I live, cross-cultural relationships are part of everyday experience. Multicultural connections shape daily life and people's understanding of society. Nine out of ten couples I know are cross-cultural and come from different continents. The government talks about “social integration” as one of the key aims of the policies, but what can be more detrimental to integration than the state breaking up families, destroying relationships and attacking the multicultural reality of British society?

About the author

Hsiao-Hung Pai is a journalist and writer whose work appears in the Guardian and other publications. Her latest book is Invisible: Britain's Migrant Sex Workers (Saqi, 2013). Her previous books include Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour (Penguin, 2008), which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2009, and Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants (Verso, 2012). Her website is here

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Hsiao-Hung Pai is a journalist and writer whose work appears in the Guardian and other publications. Her latest book is Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants (Verso, 2012). She is also the author of Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour (Penguin, 2008), which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2009