In 2010, David Cameron – then just a Prime Minister-hopeful – promised that his government would cap net immigration to “tens of thousands” rather than “hundreds of thousands”. He has certainly tried to keep that promise (while also trying to keep UKIP from stealing any more of the electorate pie), with all sorts of measures from the short-lived “racist vans” to the cancellation of post-study work visas.
But it is the immigration rule changes for family migration that has caused much heartache for both immigrants and British citizens alike. I myself have had first-hand experience; it wasn’t after getting engaged to my British boyfriend that we discovered our chances of settling in the UK together were just about zero.
The changes that came into force on 9 July 2012 stipulate that the British spouse has to earn an annual income of £18,600 (and show that he/she has been earning that amount for at least six months) in order to sponsor his/her non-EEA spouse for a visa. The foreign spouse’s income is not taken into account. The financial threshold increases if they have children also in need of sponsorship.
In a time of unpaid internships and zero-hour contracts, 47% of people in employment in the UK are unable to meet this financial requirement. Even the assistant immigration officers who work within this system are unable to meet the requirement; the only make about £15,386 to £17,377 a year.
All of a sudden, newly-married couples find themselves unable to begin their lives together, while British citizens overseas discover that it has become incredibly difficult to move their families back to the UK.
Sonel Mehta started the group BritCits in August 2012, planning to collate the stories of families who had been affected by the rules so that a more united show of opposition could be demonstrated.
“About a year ago we only had about 50 members,” she says. “It’s grown to over 600.” All were affected by the immigration rules. Most were British citizens.
It’s only the tip of the iceberg. The Home Office’s own estimate is that these changes will reduce family visas by 17,800 a year. With a judicial review of these immigration rules currently pending in the courts, 3,014 visa applications from both within and without the UK have been put on hold as of December last year.
The Home Office has staunchly defended their policy, and did so in the Court of Appeal earlier this month, justifying the financial requirement as being part of an effort to help immigrants to integrate. When asked by a judge if the Home Office was suggesting that an affluent person would integrate more easily than a poor person, the response was “yes”.
Such an answer is just a mild indication of the sort of callousness with which the Home Office treats cases of family migration. “You often see case workers cook up some strange reasons to justify refusals,” says Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer who founded the blog Free Movement. “They come up with excuses, rather than reasons.”
These excuses can range from bureaucratic, such as taking an English language test in the wrong test centre, to insensitive. After refusing to grant an American teacher the right to remain indefinitely in the UK, the Home Office justified their decision by saying that he and his wife – who was receiving treatment for cancer – could move to the States since they both spoke English as their first language.
Yeo says that such reasoning from the Home Office isn’t uncommon: “I’ve come across cases where they’ve been told, ‘You can both go to Afghanistan.’ Or, ‘You can both go to Somalia.’”
Foreign spouses have also experienced trouble at the border. When Canadian Dee travelled to the UK to visit her husband David, she was refused entry at Gatwick Airport. She was merely trying to visit her husband while on a tourist visa, but authorities were not convinced that she would leave the country when the visa expired. She was detained, then put on a plane back to Canada. She only got to speak to her husband for 30 minutes.
These are the sorts of stories that Katharine Williams-Radojicic is trying to put together as a book entitled ‘Love Letters to the Home Office’. She herself has only just been reunited with her Montenegrin husband after finally managing to meet the financial threshold.
The stories she’s collected include accounts of women have to give birth without their husbands, and even a Filipino woman who was unable to be by her British husband’s side when he died.
“It’s what these stories are. They’re people going home to apartments on their own because they’re not allowed to live their lives fully,” she says. “When you’re in this process, it’s the loneliest thing in the world.”
Spouses aren’t the only ones suffering under this policy; parents and children are too. If one wanted to apply for an adult dependent visa to bring in an elderly parent, one would have to prove that 1) one could afford to support the parent in the UK and 2) one would not be able to afford to pay someone to look after them in their home country.
Considering the cost of living in the UK compared to other countries such as India or Pakistan – many who apply for adult dependent visas are South Asian – it is actually impossible to meet both the conditions at the same time.
“They contradict themselves,” Mehta says. “That’s why it has been described as a ‘ban masquerading as a rule’.”
To campaigners and families, the government’s justifications of encouraging integration and protecting taxpayers’ interests ring hollow. Foreign spouses don’t tend to claim benefits anyway, and research has shown that keeping families apart could cost the UK instead.
People are then left to draw their own conclusions as to why the government is doing this. “There’s a lot of running scared in our government about money. My opinion is they are making panic decisions to please people,” Williams-Radojicic says.
“It’s essentially a policy that’s not been thought through,” says Mehta. “Or it’s been thought through so well it’s targeting the people they want to target. The government keeps saying it is working ‘as intended’, which I think is terrifying because it means they intended this devastation.”
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