London – Jessie Najjar hoists her eight-month-old baby Watan in the air and back into her arms to soothe his gentle murmuring. Confident yet clearly exasperated, she explains in her lilting Yorkshire accent how decisions made by the British government ensure that Watan mainly sees her father as a pixellated image over the internet.
“How can you explain that to a child that your dad isn’t allowed to be here because he’s not from this country, when all their friends’ fathers are here? I’m just full of dread every day as I’m thinking of more things that are going to be horrible to tell him.”
Jessie’s husband Ghassan is Palestinian and hence faces a barrage of obstacles to travel already. But because of changes to UK immigration legislation, the Najjar family would be in the exact same situation if he were Colombian, Japanese, Australian or from any other country outside of the European Economic Area (EEA). Jessie, 27, has worked full-time since leaving school, but still has never earned more than £18,600 ($30,900) – the new amount the British government has decided that citizens must make in order to bring a non-EEA spouse into the country.
“We live in the north of England. Not even some managers earn that much. If Watan isn’t allowed to have his dad here, it stops him from progressing, it stops us all from progressing. We’re not earning money, we’re losing money by travelling back and forwards. As a family we’ve all just… stopped.”
Families kept apart
Jessie says that after months of unanswered letters, she eventually raised the matter with her local MP, who bluntly advised her to simply live with the consequences of her decisions. She is one of thousands of British residents who have fallen in love with a foreigner and can’t afford to pay the price to unite the family – which increases steeply to £22,400 ($37,200) if a couple have a non-EEA son or daughter and a further £2,400 ($4,000) for each additional child. Families that can’t pay, regardless of how high the foreign spouse’s income is, are forced to relocate overseas or see their children raised without a parent.
Immigration is a perennial political football, and David Cameron’s Conservative-led government is wary of the threat posed by the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has been banging the anti-immigration drum in the run-up to the European elections in May. The Conservatives vaguely pledged to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015, a statement apparently aimed at quelling fears of a strained welfare state and tight labour market at a time when 2.3 million Britons are unemployed.
For many of those affected, the new threshholds are self-defeating because they unfairly punish mothers with newborn babies and no income. With the husband denied the ability to work in Britain and provide financial support, the mother is paradoxically more likely to resort to public funds. Others, such as students, are similarly trapped.
Jessica Peposhi, 26, stands outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, on her way to observe yet another appeal against the Home Office by those challenging their right to build a family in Britain.
“I’ve been separated from my husband since 2012 when the new rules came in, and I have had enough of not feeling that I have the same rights as everyone else to live as a happily married couple. I don’t even know what it’s like to live as a married couple because we haven’t had that chance to physically live together. I don’t want to move out of my country. Why should I just because I’ve married someone that I love?”
‘Onerous’ and ‘unjustified’
Jessica is being funded by the National Health Service to continue her studies of audiology. Her Albanian husband Arban was living in the UK working six days a week as a handyman until his papers expired. Since the change in legislation, he has been denied entry to the UK on suspicion that he would overstay a tourist visa.
“Even prisoners get the right for someone to visit them twice a month. It’s definitely made us stronger as a couple, but it’s made me feel that I don’t belong in my own country anymore,” Peposhi said.
After an appeal against the measures by three claimants, the High Court in July 2013 deemed the requirements “onerous”, “disproportionate” and “unjustified”. However, the court was powerless to force a change in policy,
The Home Office said in a statement: “We welcome those who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, work hard and make a contribution. But family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense. To play a full part in British life, family migrants must be able to integrate. That means they must speak our language and pay their way.”
The assumption that migrants flock to Britain with little interest other than to attempt the intricate process of signing up to receive state funds is a common refrain that seems to conflict with the government’s courting of foreign investment. If a British citizen is unemployed, they can apply for a visa for their spouse if they have cash savings of £62,000 ($103,000) in the bank for more than six months, something beyond the reach of most in the country. A picture slowly begins to emerge of a government policy that critics say wreaks havoc on families rich and poor alike.
Monte, a senior accountant and high-rate taxpayer, is still mourning the loss of his father six months ago. His elderly mother is alone in Kenya suffering from depression. But under the new rules, for Monte to bring her to the UK, she must “require long-term personal care to perform everyday tasks e.g. washing, dressing and cooking… [and are]… unable even with the practical and financial help of a sponsor to obtain a required level of care in the country where they are living”.
Monte’s mother does not fit this category, but a person fitting such a description would be most likely unable to cope with the upheaval of travelling in the first place. The Home Office’s ostensible position is that if you are able to send money for an elderly relative abroad, then this is sufficient for them to remain there.
As a result, Monte has quit his job and is moving back to Kenya to be with his mother, casting him and his family into an uncertain future. Rebuking the government’s approach, even British MPs from the influential All-Party Parliamentary Group on migration commented that this visa category has effectively been closed down.
“They don’t take emotional ties into account,” said Monte. “She visited me here recently and enjoys playing with my kids, but that was just on a tourist visa and then she had to leave. We are a very happy family and now we’re split. It’s a policy that makes you choose between your parent and your family in the UK who, if the breadwinner moves away, will be dependent on the state.”
Pricey visa applications
Katharine Williams-Radojicic is one of the lucky ones. She managed to raise her lighting designer’s salary to above the threshold so that she could finally be reunited with her Montenegrin husband, though she estimates they have spent more than £3,000 ($5,000) in visa applications just this year. She describes how she froze when she read the new changes in legislations and vowed to find a way to be with her soulmate.
“I used to say that it is 2,000 miles [3,220 kilometres] by road from London to Podgorica, and if walking there was all I had to do for Raco and I to live our lives together in freedom, I’d start walking right now.”
Katharine is now using her experience to launch a campaign where she invites all British residents whose families have been divided to write to the department responsible for their predicament, outlining their case and pleading for justice. Many of them will be collated in a new book entitled Love Letters to the Home Office. But will anyone toiling away in the tunnels of the government be reading?
“Working in the Home Office are extraordinary human beings who have their own love stories, epic and domestic, just like the rest of us. In the same way you can’t apply market forces to people’s lives, trying to reduce a complex visa application to binary doesn’t work. Someone, somewhere in the bowels of the Home Office is reading the love letters and praying for the law to change.”
Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew