Migrants and the State: an exclusive national family?

Agnes Woolley examines the implications of the UK Government’s new rules on family migration and argues that if families are the building blocks of a secure and stable nation, then the right to family life must be upheld

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration in the UK is now in the final weeks of its inquiry into the impact of new rules on family migration, which came into effect in July 2012. According to its Chair, Kate Green MP, the inquiry will ‘consider how far the changes could hamper policies that promote family life in the UK, which is an essential element of strong and integrated communities.’ While Green is right to highlight the importance of family life to the maintenance of stable societies, what the inquiry does not address is how far these new rules contribute to the increasingly narrow and exclusive vision of the national family. 

In brief, the government changes to family migration rules include: a new income requirement of £18, 600 for people wishing to sponsor the settlement of a family member or spouse, an extended probationary period before that family member or spouse can apply for settlement (an increase from two to five years) and a review of the application of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to family and private life) in immigration cases. Responding to these changes, the Migrants’ Rights Network published a briefing in June 2012, which points to the wide disparity in earnings between different social groups. This means that women, people who live outside the south east of England, Bangladeshi or Pakistani communities and young people, will all be less likely to have access to family life by sponsoring the settlement of a spouse or family member.

Missing from this list are those asylum seekers who instead of refugee status, which comes with an automatic right to family reunion, have been given Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) in the UK. Unlike officially recognised refugees, those with ILR must meet the same financial criteria as other settled or British citizens applying for family migration; hardly likely when they have not been allowed to undertake employment and have had only limited access to education (see People on the Move for details about the injustices of the British asylum-determination system and the Refugee Council’s current campaign on asylum seekers’ rights to work). The majority of asylum seekers granted ILR submitted their claims before 2007 and form part of the backlog of ‘legacy’ cases which has been so badly managed by the UKBA. With some cases dating as far back as 2003, these asylum seekers have often been living apart from loved ones for up to ten years and have no automatic right to be reunited with them once their cases have been resolved.

Seemingly part of its stealth power grab from the EU, the Government is also attempting to reform the application of Article 8 of the ECHR (incorporated into UK law in the Human Rights Act of 1998) in immigration cases. In its desperation to drive down immigration numbers, the Government’s new rules stipulate that it is only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ that recourse to Article 8 will be considered for those wishing to settle in the UK and only if it outweighs ‘the public interest’. But given the consensus on the importance of familial relationships, why exactly is it in the ‘public interest’ to limit family life both for British-born citizens and newly-settled migrants? Leaving aside the Daily Mail’s panic over ‘foreign criminals’, is it just a question of economics? Or do these new rules pose wider questions about the changing nature of the national family?

Nations are often described through the metaphor of the family. The US has its ‘Founding Fathers’, France’s national motto includes ‘fraternité’ as a key tenet and a ‘motherland’ is often invoked among diasporic communities. However, partly as a result of its bloody colonial history, modern Britain has struggled to define itself in these terms. No longer comfortably occupying the role of ‘mother country’ for ex-colonial subjects, and rapidly fragmenting as a result of devolution, the UK invokes filial unity only in the context of the increasingly anachronistic ‘Commonwealth family’. This anxiety over expressions of collective nationality has long been reflected in the country’s contradictory relationship to immigration and has led to reductive questions about pubs, cricket and the parliamentary system in the ‘Life in the UK’ test, which even the most ‘British’ of British citizens is likely to have trouble with. 

George Lakoff draws attention to the conceptual importance of the family metaphor in his 1996 book Moral Politics, where he argues that differing conceptions of the family account for the variation in conservative and liberal worldviews. For conservatives, the nation is conceptualised as a ‘Strict Father family’, while liberals prefer the idea of a ‘Nurturant Parent’. It’s not hard to see to which type of family Britain currently conforms in its restrictive approach to migrants’ rights. Yet given the coalition’s position that ‘strong and stable families of all kinds’ are ‘the bedrock of a strong and stable society’, it seems contradictory to introduce a set of measures designed to limit their formation and suggests that it is a very specific type of family that the Government has in mind.

While it may not explicitly conceive of itself through familial metaphors, like many countries, Britain spends a great deal of time worrying about the nature of the modern family. It is regularly the focus of debates over welfare and social policy, and the evolving diversity of contemporary families in Britain is a touchstone for politicians of both right and left. As a microcosm of the nation, then, the changing composition of the family reflects what the APPG on migration describe as: ‘wider shifts in UK society’ which demonstrate ‘higher international mobility among the UK population than in the past’ and ‘the increasing diversity of the British-born population.’ Resisting these trends through restrictive family migration policies contradicts the Government’s own stated aims of improving the integration of Britain’s diverse communities.

This leaves us with coexistent visions of the nation: the liberal, conceptual nation and the predominantly illiberal institution of the nation-state. At its best, the UK can offer protection to those fleeing from persecution and a supportive environment for migrant family members through inclusion in the national family. This is borne out time and again in British citizens’ welcoming responses to refugee and immigrant members of their communities, which demonstrate that the pride many Britons feel in their history of hospitality to immigration is not misplaced. But if we’re to ensure that this history has a continuing relevance, it’s crucial that we do not cleave to rigid and exclusionary conceptions of what constitutes the national family. Though not without resistance, Britain has come to accept and embrace new and diverse forms of family and kinship - lone parent families, gay and lesbian couples, adopting and fostering families - can we not do the same on a national scale? If families are the building blocks of a secure and stable nation, then the right to family life must be upheld. 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Agnes Woolley is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Contemporary Asylum Narratives: Representing Refugees in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and has published extensively on postcolonial literature, theatre and film, with a focus on migration, diaspora and climate change. She is also a trustee at Streatham Drop-In Centre for Asylum Seekers and Refugees.

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