‘We Skype every morning’
You meet a foreign partner, fall in love and dream of starting a family. But unless you have enough money, British visa laws mean you’re forced to live thousands of miles apart. John Harris talks to couples divided by red tape
John Harris meets parents separated by visa rules
Laura Clarke is 29. She lives in Rugby, with her parents, and her 16-month-old son, Elijah. Every day she shows Elijah a picture of his father, her partner Biniyam Tesfaye. It’s the best she can do: he lives over 3,700 miles away in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “He’s missing out on his son, and his son’s missing out on him,” she says. “We show Elijah pictures, but he’s not actually seeing him, so he’s not even using the word ‘Dada’ or ‘Daddy’. The longer this goes on, the more it will affect him.”
Clarke and Tesfaye first got together when she was teaching English at a primary school in Addis Ababa; he was one of her colleagues: “We met on my first day. We were friends for about a month, and then after that, things started to develop,” she says.
When her job came to an end, Clarke came back to the UK, assuming he could soon join her. “Then about three weeks later, I found out I was pregnant,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is going to make life very difficult, but it’s still a gift – I’m happy. We’ll get through it.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”
Elijah was born in October 2016. There was no mobile reception in the maternity ward, so Laura’s mother, Michelle, called Tesfaye to tell him his son had been born. “I was in hospital for two days afterwards,” says Laura. “I saw people with their husbands, and I thought, ‘I should have that opportunity.’” What kept her going, she says, was the fact that Tesfaye had applied for a visitor’s visa and was meant to arrive for a six-month stay that Christmas. But then they heard that the Home Office had turned him down because he couldn’t supply the six months’ worth of bank statements it said was necessary. “That was hard. Really hard,” she says. “You can’t get that time back.” Seventeen months have passed since Elijah was born, and they’re still apart.
Elijah is one of an estimated 15,000 children living without a parent because of restrictions on family visas. Tesfaye would like to live with his family in the UK, but in order to apply to bring over a foreign partner, you must earn at least £18,600 a year. Clarke’s work as a college teacher and PR for a charity brings in an income that is usually “a few hundred a month” short.
Theresa May first announced the idea of a specific income requirement in May 2012, when she was home secretary. Having settled on the idea of doing away with the old insistence that couples and families simply had to live without “recourse to public funds”, she had initially floated a minimum earnings figure for UK citizens of £25,700, before deciding on £18,600, thought to be the amount of money at which people do not need benefits. About 40% of working people in the UK do not earn the required amount.
The details of the rules are bafflingly complex. If a husband, wife or partner wants to bring a child who is not a UK citizen with them, the £18,600 figure rises to £22,400, with an additional £2,400 for each further child. These numbers do not include the fees – which often exceed £2,000 – that the Home Office charges for applications, the equally sizable legal costs many people see as essential to success, or the £400 annual charge people granted visas now have to pay to use the NHS. A mountain of paperwork is also obligatory: among other items, people must prove that a relationship is genuine by sending print-outs of emails, texts and online messages. Shared savings in excess of £16,000 can be used to slightly dilute the income requirement, and if you’ve amassed £62,500 or more, there is no income requirement at all – but for most people affected, these caveats represent cold comfort.
The Home Office explanation is short and sharp. “Those who wish to make a life in the UK with their family must work hard and make a contribution,” a spokesperson says. “Family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense.”
In the early days of her relationship with Tesfaye, Clarke says, she wasn’t aware of the new rules. “Not the £18,600 figure anyway. I just knew that I needed to work. I’d always travelled freely and assumed other people could travel freely. I knew there had been changes, and it was strict, but I didn’t realise it was so restrictive.”
As she sees it, there is a particularly glaring injustice at the heart of the rules. Parents with babies or toddlers, she says, simply can’t put in the kind of working hours that the income requirement demands without running the risk of damaging the development of their children. She currently works four days a week between her two jobs, which obviously pains her. “Elijah’s nursery have said I need to develop his speech more. So I’m working, but every little bit of time I get with him before putting him in the bath, or bed, I’m trying to talk to him as much as possible. Children need one-on-one.”
After Clarke got help from their local MP, Conservative Mark Pawsey, Tesfaye was finally granted a visitor visa, and came to Rugby in April 2017. For six months, he lived with Clarke and Elijah at her parents’ house. “That’s when he really bonded with Elijah, and that’s what I wanted. That’s the most important thing for me,” she says. They held a christening. Tesfaye joined a local five-a-side football team. They also thought about getting married while he was in the UK, but found out it would break the terms of his visa. He went back to Ethiopia last October, and resumed a relationship with his family almost entirely through Facebook Messenger. “Internet access is limited in Ethiopia,” says Clarke. “We can’t do video – it just cuts off.”
Six months before Tesfaye left the UK, the supreme court ruled that parts of the spouse visa rules threatened to breach Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which sets out the right to a family and private life.
The government eventually responded by allowing for new considerations including “credible guarantee of sustainable financial support from a third party” in “exceptional circumstances”, relating to “unjustifiably harsh →
‘He’s missing out on his son, and his son’s missing out on him. We try to show Elijah pictures of Daddy, but he’s not actually seeing him, so he’s not using the word “Dada” or “Daddy”’
consequences for the applicant, the partner or a child under the age of 18 years old”.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) says it “has seen no evidence that these changes have had any effect on decision-making at the Home Office”. But Clarke and Tesfaye think they offer a glimmer of hope, and are planning to put in an application for a six-month fiance visa, which would lead in turn to a spouse visa that can be renewed after 33 months (after five years, a husband, wife or civil partner from abroad can apply to settle in the UK). “We’re stressing the fact that Elijah doesn’t get to Skype with his father, that my parents are willing to support us financially, so Tesfaye wouldn’t ever be using public funds,” she says. She points out that as a graduate and experienced teacher, he would easily find work.
I speak to Tesfaye on the phone. His English is perfect; his reflections on their predicament are stoic. Being apart from Clarke when their son was born, he says, was “really hard for me – I had to imagine everything”. His earnings from teaching, he says, restrict how much they can talk on the phone, and even messaging is fraught with difficulty. “Sometimes there’s internet, sometimes not,” he says. When martial law was introduced last year, he couldn’t get online for a month.
Of course, he recalls with fondness the six months he spent in Rugby. “There was no chance for me to work, so I stayed with Elijah most of the time. It was a really happy time. But knowing I had to go back really hurt,” he says. “Now, I have to dream about him.”
The JCWI’s campaign against the visa system and its effects on families has the hashtagged slogan #BringThemHome. Many of the affected families are also members of two Facebook groups: I Love My Foreign Spouse, which has 12,000 members, and UK spouse settlement visa, with just under 10,000. The JCWI wants the government to repeal the “inhumane” minimum-income requirement policy “in its entirety”.
“Forty per cent of people who work in this country are too poor to marry who they want,” says the JCWI’s chief executive, Satbir Singh. “The law has been written to make people unequal. It divides them into groups that have rights and privileges, and groups that don’t.”
Singh, who was born in Essex, has direct experience of the system’s unfairness. His wife is an Indian national, and for a while, the two of them lived and worked in Washington DC. Changes to the immigration system instigated by President Trump meant they had to leave. He went to London; she travelled to India. They soon decided to try to settle in the UK, but the fact that he was working as an independent consultant meant a delay to his wife joining him: if you’re self-employed, the Home Office demands that you have been earning the required amount for at least a year before an application for a spouse visa is even considered.
He then got his current salaried job, but there were problems even then. The Home Office lost the couple’s paperwork and eventually refused his wife’s case. Singh wrote a blogpost, comparing his situation with that of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who had just announced their engagement. The article, titled As Meghan Markle Chooses To Become A British Citizen I Just Wait For My Wife To Be Able To Come Home, went viral. Three days later, the Home Office reversed its decision. “That’s obviously great,” Singh says, “but it’s not how the system is supposed to work. Most people won’t be able to do anything like that.”
Mandy Williams and George Okoth have a two-year-old son, →
‘ Forty percent of people who work in this country are too poor to marry who they want. The law divides us into groups that have rights and privileges, and groups that don’t’
Portraits by Stephen Burke
Left: Mandy Williams and George Okoth and their son, Eric, in Kenya, in October 2017 – it was the first time Okoth had met his son. Right: Williams and Eric, who is now two, in Burnham-on-Sea last month