Brexit divorce set to increase UK's “skype families”
Stringent Home Office criteria for spousal visas, and their “overzealous” application, will mean a big increase in the number of families split between the UK and another country after Brexit
Spouse visas have a notorious reputation in the UK. They are almost impossible to obtain, and boast having some of the highest refusal rates across all the visa categories.
Newlyweds and long-term couples looking to relocate their family to the UK – or start one – are faced with overwhelmingly stringent requirements and costs. Younger couples and low-income families struggle to meet the spouse visa minimum income requirement of £18,600 – which rises by £3,800 for one child and a further £2,400 per child after. However, it’s prohibitively expensive even for a middle-class family: the visa itself costs £1,523 per person, not including the fee to take and pass the compulsory English language test, register all biometric information, lawyer fees and the (recently doubled) immigration health surcharge (IHS).
However, even those fortunate enough to fly over the financial hurdles could still fall victim to the Home Office’s rigorous and subjective “genuine relationship” test. To verify that the couple are in a legitimate marriage, Government caseworkers trawl through marriage certificates, photographs, statements, emails, joint bills and a plethora of documents. Yet innocent couples have had their spouse visa UK application refused for submitting “suspiciously” high volumes of evidence, as well as too little. Proving to be in a legitimate relationship when caseworkers meticulously comb through every application with overzealous scrutiny is arguably the hardest criterion to satisfy. The requirement is only resulting in loving couples being wrenched apart and denied their human right – to love and live together as a family.
Understandably, the Government is intent on catching perpetrators of sham marriages and marriages of convenience, in which an individual marries for the sole purpose of enhancing their immigration status and claim in the UK. However, the grey area of this is that a couple can be genuinely together and in a long-term relationship, yet still be found guilty of marrying out of convenience. There certainly is something to be said as to how a caseworker can determine whether a couple's motive to marry is for a visa or for love – and why it should matter if the couple marries for both anyway? It doesn’t help that the alternative hurdles for coming to live together in the UK are even bleaker: applicants must either be a millionaire investor, a budding entrepreneur or be earning a salary of £30,000 to qualify for a different visa route.
Yet in a heightened climate of hostility towards migrants under the supposedly now abandoned “hostile environment”, the Government has been investigating more and more marriage registrations in the UK, in which more actual couples are being caught in their net. A freedom of information request by the Guardian discovered that 2,868 marriage registrations were flagged as a potential sham in 2018, a 40% rise from those flagged in 2014. And, although the Home Office is withholding the exact number of how many of these registrations were actually unlawful, genuine couples reported having their wedding ceremonies gatecrashed by investigators, while others were subjected to intense and embarrassing interrogations about their private – and intimate – lives. Some even had their toothbrushes counted.
Exacerbating the disparity, a forced marriage scandal emerged last year in which hundreds of British underage girls and women were sold and married off abroad against their will. Despite never even having met their fiancés before the big day, they still – somehow – managed to bypass caseworkers' stringent checks that are specifically designed to catch perpetrators and safeguard the vulnerable. Some women were even reportedly crying in their wedding photographs, yet their husbands were granted a visa anyway. As many as 1,196 victims required support from the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) last year, which the leading forced marriage charity in the UK, Karma Nirvana, claims to be just a drop in the ocean to the hidden scandal. Its hotline receives up to 800 tipoffs and desperate phone calls a month. This only begs the question, how is the Government allowing forced marriages and essentially the rape of minors to breeze through its barriers while parents with children are kept worlds apart because of the Home Office’s unwarranted suspicion that a motive for their marriage involved visa advantages?
To bulldoze any hopes that the Government plans on relaxing its hostility is its move towards tightening the criteria even further. In a statement of immigration changes this March, the Secretary of State revealed that the Government reserves the right to refuse an application entirely if an applicant misses just one interview, even if they meet the visa requirements.
The sad reality of refusing a spouse visa application is that families have no choice but to live countries apart and to schedule phone calls where the time difference isn’t too excessive. Parents are clinging to the cold cable of their internet connection to communicate with their children, missing first moments, birthdays, Christmases, wedding anniversaries and school plays. According to the Children’s Commissioner report, Skype Families, there are 15,000 children living without a parent in the UK due to family visa restrictions. Even short-term visits are ruled out for the most unlucky: one anguished mother had her visitor visa application repeatedly refused on the grounds that the Home Office suspected she would overstay her visa and abide in the UK illegally. What kind of Government justifies segregating children and parents as punishment for not earning enough money or falling shy of proving their sincerity? Isn’t having children proof enough?
With Brexit now approaching, coupled with the Government's skills-based immigration vision for 2021, it is expected that “skype families” across the continent will become more common. After Brexit, all European entrants will need to apply for a visa, meaning multinational EU-UK couples will be tasked with satisfying the infamous spouse visa requirements and Home Office interrogations. Some EU partners have marginally longer – until 29 March 2022 – if they can evidence that their relationship existed beforehand.
Clearly, ending free movement is a sour prohibition on love. Even the most determined lover will have their devotion put through the test. But even success at the initial stage doesn’t guarantee security: after two and a half years, couples are required to endure the process again as they seek a spouse visa extension to stay.
Brexit isn’t just about negotiating the UK-EU trading relationship and tightening borders; it also involves the harshest red lines on romance imaginable. While heightened background checks are necessary, the problem is that applications fall into the hands of a subjective caseworker who routinely forgets they are handling real people whose livelihoods and family life are desperately reliant on a positive verdict.
Love may conquer all, but conquering the Home Office is mission impossible. The financial and emotional cost of loving a Brit in post-Brexit Britain seems hardly worth it.
Olivia Bridge is a political correspondent and commentator for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK immigration lawyers