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Migrant women in the UK: settling for rather than settling in

Women with a high level of educational qualifications who migrate to the UK to join their British husbands are finding the path to employment strewn with obstacles.

UK Border at Heathrow airport. Credit: David McKelvey via FlickrThere is one group of migrant women in the UK of whom we hear very little in the news: those who come here on a spousal visa i.e. on the basis of marriage to a British citizen. Although it appears to be the largest group of women migrants (there is no gender breakdown for the spousal visa category), over and above asylum seekers and women trafficked into the sex industry or domestic slavery, their day to day difficulties of settling in do not attract the same attention as the dramatic disclosures of women asylum seekers in the Yarl's Wood detention centre who have died, or been sexually harassed and assaulted, and gone on hunger strike in protest against the conditions in detention.  

When this group of migrant women on spousal visas has hit the headlines, it has been largely because of the longstanding efforts of Southall Black Sisters and their allies to draw attention to the fact that their marriages had failed as a result of violence, and they were unjustly faced with deportation and/or No recourse to Public Funds. However, these are women who, even by the severely restricted scope for legitimate migration under the law, should be on a route to settlement in the UK on the basis of their marriage to British citizens, find their aspirations ground down on a daily basis.

New research, Settling In, by Eaves, a charity which specialises in supporting trafficked women and women exiting prostitution, has found that women on spousal visas are frozen out of British society at every level. The report which is due to be launched in Parliament on 24 June is based on in depth interviews with 86 women, from 32 countries, ranging from the USA to Yemen and Venezuela to China. You would have thought that a government so committed to the idea of marriage and family would do everything in its power to smooth the path of the newly-weds. Wrong.

First, David Cameron tried to drastically restrict the number of people who can enter the country to marry British citizens in order to fulfil his pledge to reduce immigration. New rules declared that the British spouse must earn a minimum of £18,600 in order to be eligible to sponsor a non-British partner. It has been calculated that only 47% of the British population would qualify. Incidentally, this is much higher than the minimum wage of £13,240 for a 38 hour week which the government obviously believes is adequate to keep body and soul together for locals but not enough for migrant spouses. English language tests for incoming spouses have been made much more difficult and the probationary period for such marriages has been increased from two to five years which means that foreign spouses cannot apply for the right to remain until five years have elapsed.

Whilst some of the new findings around loneliness and language barriers, racism and rejection are predictable, the most astonishing finding which surprised even the researchers was the high level of educational qualifications and lack of commensurate employment among this group. Nearly 92% of women had been enrolled in formal education prior to coming here, and nearly 58% of women had one or more graduate and post-graduate degrees. Despite this, a majority of women were not in paid employment, and those who were, were working mostly in part-time jobs that were well below their abilities. A Turkish woman who had been a senior director in a company with 800 construction engineers, mainly men, could not find a job in Britain.

Women feared their ‘economic vulnerability’ if they were reliant on their husbands because they were unemployed or worked in unpaid jobs. This was especially hard for women who had been used to their financial independence. Having failed to get job after job, one woman wondered whether she should have adopted her British husband’s surname, a classic case of how race and gender intersect to keep a migrant woman down. The fact of being on a spousal visa with an expiry date also made them less attractive to employers.

Nor could they access careers advice at jobcentres because this is only available to women on benefits. Lack of fluency in English restricted access to jobs and meaningful social relationships and basic information. One woman who was in a violent relationship rang 911 to contact the police because that was the number used in the Hollywood films she watched on TV. Free English classes and free childcare is not available to this group of women. Everything that women cited as lifelines – English classes, community centres, NGOs – are all facing cuts in any case. Even when these women find jobs, they are unable to take them up because childcare is so expensive. A newly set up charity, Breaking Barriers, which is trying to bridge the gap between qualifications and employment for newly arrived immigrants, has an Iranian architect and a Kosovan woman with business degrees on their books. For the Iranian architect, they found a job as architectural assistant but her earnings would equate to about 80% of child care costs; the Kosovan woman wants to work as a teaching assistant while she studies to become a teacher but her earnings would cover less than 60% of child care costs, and she would receive no pay outside of term times. Whilst all women have to deal with expensive childcare, for migrant women who have even greater difficulties finding work, it can feel insurmountable.

Although the Eaves report touches on domestic violence  and how the women’s dependence on their spouse’s settled status can hand the controls of their relationship over to the men, it does not explore how a system that is set up to make the foreign spouse feel unwelcome might lead to relationship failure.  Furthermore,  it does not examine how a woman’s place in the family is further undermined by her uncertain migration status.  Many women report the ‘starting from scratch’ syndrome: the sacrifices they have had to make by giving up their jobs, families and social circles to join their husbands. Surely this resentment would impact on their relationships.

Surprisingly, the Eaves report uses the discredited terms ‘host society’ and ‘integration’ which were squarely rejected in the early days of debate in the UK around race and immigration; and by early I mean the 1970s. ‘Host’ was rejected because it diminished the status of immigrant to receiver of charity rather than holder of rights. Integration was rejected because it was usually synonymous with assimilation, a process by which migrants stripped themselves of their cultural markers and were absorbed into the mainstream. After 9/11 and the perceived failure of multiculturalism in sections of the establishment, there was an ideological return to integration, most famously in the speech delivered by Blair in 2006  when he warned Britain's different communities that they have a ‘duty to integrate’ and that the promotion of basic values must take priority over separate beliefs and customs.

The anti-terror agenda drove the return to integration as a Communities and Local Government paper made clear in 2012, “Integration benefits us all, and extremism and intolerance undermine this as they promote fear and division. An integrated society may be better equipped to reject extremism and marginalise extremists.” But the term remains contested. A spokesperson for Eaves said that the use of these terms was partly determined by the agenda of the European Integration Fund which supported the report.  

However, the report attempts to inject a progressive understanding of ‘integration’ by blaming the government’s failure to support new migrants rather than placing the onus on immigrants to do more to integrate. The report also gives the women the power to define it - to own the process of integrating. One woman says, quite simply, ‘So coming here and making it your own, you know? I think that would be integration for me as an all-encompassing definition.’


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