‘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

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

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

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