Professor Katharine Charsley, Professor of Migration Studies, University of Bristol — Written evidence (FAM0029)   

Introduction and research background:

  1. This submission focusses on the spouse/partner visa route (hereafter referred to as ‘family’, as children are often involved), as the focus of my own research over the past two decades. It draws in particular on three research projects since the 2012 introduction of the current family immigration regime: Marriage Migration and IntegrationKept Apart: couples and families separated by the immigration regulations; and UK-EU couples after Brexit (recently funded).

 

  1. This Inquiry is particularly timely as significant new populations will be negatively affected by the family immigration system as a result of Brexit (bringing UK-EU families under UK immigration rules) and the ‘cost of living crisis’ (putting the process out of the financial reach of many). As a result, a wider audience will become familiar with the challenges of the family migration system. The Ukraine crisis has shown that greater public awareness of the immigration system’s delays, errors and refusals can create strongly negative public discourse responses, and pressure on policy makers.

 

  1. The 2013 APPG report, and 2015 Children’s Commissioner report  identified several problems with the 2012 Family Migration rules, including the rigidness of Minimum Income Requirements, differential impacts on different social groups, family separation and negative impacts on children – issues not explored in the original Impact Assessment. The resulting recommendations have generally not been acted upon, so these problems persist.

 

  1. This submission responds to Inquiry Questions: 2 (variable impact); 3 (MIR), 7 & 8 (Family Separation) and 10 (Integration). It includes a Conclusion and Recommendations.

 

Variable Impact of immigration law on families - inconsistencies and discrepancies (Inquiry Question 2):

  1. Differential impacts of the family immigration regime have long been observed. The Minimum Income Requirement (MIR) means lower income groups (women, some ethnic minorities, residents of lower-income regions) are more likely to be separated from partners and children. Variation in refusal rates by nationality of applicants has likely been influenced by identification of particular nationalities as ‘high risk’ (Charsley 2012: 199-200) and algorithm streaming of applications.

 

  1. Researchers also point to the targeting of particular groups in family immigration policy discourse, in particular the representation of British South Asian Muslim transnational marriages as problematic – referencing forced marriage, and more recently integration (e.g. Casey Review, for overview: Charsley et al 2020: 1-30).

 

  1. Mainstream vs bespoke pathways: Until Brexit, UK-EU couples enjoyed Freedom of Movement. Such relationships are common (1 in 24 cohabiting couples in England and Wales). In a House of Lords debate contesting the application of the family immigration rules to EU citizens after Brexit, the government responded that to treat UK-EU couples differently would discriminate against non-EU applicants. However, the more generous ‘bespoke’ scheme for Ukrainians seeking to join family members, and earlier Afghan scheme, suggest government appetite may now exist for formal differential treatment based on nationality, but also raises questions of equality.

Minimum Income Requirement (Inquiry Question 3):

  1. The stated rationale for the introduction of the minimum income requirement (MIR) was set out in the Impact Assessment for the 2012 changes to the Family Migration Rules: 

‘The Government believes that family migrants and their sponsors must have sufficient financial independence not only to be able to support themselves without recourse to the State, but also that they should have the wherewithal to allow the migrant to participate in everyday life in a way that enables them to integrate and play a full part in British society. This requires a level of income higher than the current maintenance requirement, which is equivalent to the level of income support, is inadequate to prevent migrants and sponsors becoming a burden on the welfare system and in turn inhibits proper integration.’

The rationale was therefore: 1. To ensure family migrants and sponsors could support themselves financially without recourse to public funds, and 2. To facilitate their integration. Both rationales are problematic, and the Impact Assessment did not assess the full costs of introducing the MIR. This section deals with financial independence/reliance on public funds, whilst integration is discussed below (para 21-26).

  1. Ensuring financial support without public funds: For sponsors with children, inability to meet the MIR creates enforced single parenthood. Lack of a resident partner to share childcare and/or childcare costs can be a barrier to the sponsor’s paid employment or increasing their hours, and may result in sponsors resorting to benefits. The rules can therefore produce reliance on public funds – a key unintended consequence. The situation may be particularly difficult where children have additional care needs, and/or where the overseas partner would be the main earner (reinforcing gender disparities in impacts of the rules). This situation can trap sponsors in being unable to meet the MIR due to enforced single parenthood resulting from inability to meet the MIR. An example from the Kept Apart research project provides illustration:

Amanda[1] wanted to return to the UK from living in China with her Filipino husband Freddy. Amanda returned with their young son Oscar to find a job to meet the MIR, but Oscar has special educational needs and she struggled to find suitable full-time childcare. She has not been able to take on full-time work to meet the MIR. They have not been in the UK long enough to qualify for Disability Living Allowance (which would exempt them from the MIR) and so face extended separation.

  1. The MIR should not be considered in isolation from other financial requirements of the regime, including substantial visa fees and other costs. In 2020 we calculated a minimum cost of over £7000 for the process from visa application to settlement (Kept Apart, p12), not including legal advice or costs of appeals. Fees and costs have since increased. These sums are already unaffordable for many, but the ‘cost of living’ crisis will put the application process beyond the reach of a much larger proportion of bi-national couples and families. (The fee-waiver scheme seems to treat prolonged family separation whilst saving as reasonable.)

 

  1. Increasing the probationary period before settlement to 5 years is a neglected aspect of the 2012 rules, but also has financial implications including Further Leave to Remain [FLR] fees during probation. This extended period of financial demands can cause difficulties and hardship. Those who cannot meet the requirements may be moved to the 10 year route involving additional FLR fee points, penalising the least well-off applicants.

 

  1. While ensuring financial independence was a primary rationale for the MIR, it therefore has unintended negative financial consequences, and is in conflict with the practice of substantial increases in fees and costs, which create financial pressures and separation, and with additional fee requirements in extended probationary periods. 

Family Separation (Inquiry Question 7 & 8):

  1. Extended periods of family separation are built-in to the family immigration system, and caused by:
  1. Lengthy application processing times (3 months standard prior to Ukrainian prioritisation, now 6 months; ‘complex’ cases longer)
  2. The complexity of the application process and evidence gathering (e.g. stamped bank statements, payslips, relationship evidence etc).
  3. For sponsors not already earning the MIR: finding employment, working for 6 months to meet evidence requirement.
  4. For those without substantial savings: saving for application costs.
  5. For those initially refused: saving for costs of appeals, legal advice.

Family separation for 6-9 months is therefore normal, and much longer periods of separation are not unusual. Separation can become indefinite for those rejected (approx. 1 in 5 applications). Immigration appeals are often successful, suggesting errors in initial decisions, but not everyone can afford to appeal. No statistics exist on those unable to afford application costs, or meet the MIR, and who therefore do not even apply.

  1. The 2012 Impact Assessment states: ‘a consequential reduction in net migration would be a welcome additional benefit.’ In this context, it may be relevant to note scholarship on migration that explores the use of temporality – particularly enforced waiting, temporariness and separation – as intrinsic to immigration control (Griffiths et al 2013, Charsley & Wray in preparation).

 

  1. Separation by the family immigration regime affects not just family formation (e.g. recently-married couples or those wishing to marry in the UK), but families returning to the UK from living overseas. Unless the UK partner already earns the MIR overseas and has a UK job offer for the MIR, they must usually return to the UK (alone or with British citizen children), find employment, and work for 6 months before they can apply for family reunification.

 

  1. Being separated from a parent for even 6-9 months is a long time in the life of a child. Negative impacts on children were reported soon after the introduction of the 2012 changes (Children’s Commissioner 2015), and featured in our Kept Apart research. For example:

Sophia was living in Turkey with her teacher husband and their daughter. After the 2016 miliary coup caused concerns about their security, they decided to move to the UK, so Sophia returned with their young daughter. Sophia found work, but her daughter’s mental health was badly affected by separation from her father becoming hysterical when Sophia left for work, and developing mutism, stool holding and anxiety resulting in hospitalisation. The state of emergency in Turkey restricted visiting, and the family were separated for two years. The daughter’s health problems only resolved once her father joined them in the UK.

  1. These periods not just of separation, but uncertainty over the future of their family life, and the stress of complex application processes, are emotionally, practically and financially difficult for couples with or without children. Kept Apart participants reported loneliness and isolation (families and friends sometimes assumed a ‘genuine’ partner would be able to come to the UK, so viewed the relationship with suspicion); mental health impacts including stress, depression, other diagnoses and worsening of existing conditions (one attempted suicide after her husband’s visa refusal); and impacts on physical health and wellbeing including insomnia, panic attacks, alcohol misuse, hair loss, and weight issues.

 

  1. Where the impacts of stress and separation on participants’ and children’s health and wellbeing affect sponsors’ employment, this may act as a barrier to meeting family immigration regime requirements, and so prolong separation.

 

  1. Even visits are not always possible: saving for visa and other costs limits finances for travel; UK visit visas may be rejected; passports are usually submitted with applications; and other factors may inhibit visits to the non-UK spouse’s country of residence (see example, para 16).

 

  1. Families commonly use communication technology to maintain contact and attempt to participate in each other’s lives. Attempting ‘synchronicity’ by sharing mundane activities (e.g. supervising homework) and special occasions over video call are central ways transnational families try to maintain their relationships (Robertson 2021, Charsley & Wray in prep). Kept Apart project participants valued this technology but also reported a negative side – describing mobile phones and tablets as ‘lifelines’, ‘bringing hope’, but also as painfully inadequate substitutes for the physical presence of a partner or parent. ‘I love and hate this object’, one participant wrote about their mobile phone, ‘It’s not enough, it’s all I have.’ Some reported that they or their children were sometimes unable to speak to their partner/parent on the phone, as it was too painful, or the child did not understand why the parent could not be there in person.

Integration (Inquiry Question 10):

  1. Promoting integration was a key rationale for the Minimum Income Requirement – families would need money for the migrant partner to ‘participate in everyday life in a way that enables them to integrate and play a full part in British society’. However, the negative impacts of the MIR and other aspects of the family migration regime on integration have not been evaluated.

 

  1. The Inquiry’s interest in not just the integration of family migrants, but also would-be sponsors is welcome. The term ‘integration’ is often used loosely or selectively, and to refer only to minority or migrant populations. Viewing integration as encompassing interacting processes of participation across multiple domains (structural, social, civic and political, cultural and identity), enables a ‘whole society’ approach to integration (Charsley & Spencer 2019, Everyday Integration).

 

  1. This perspective ensures that diverse integration impacts of the family migration regime, not just for migrants but also for sponsors and families, can be taken into account. The negative impacts described in previous sections of this submission, such as enforced single parenthood and social isolation, can thus be seen as issues of inhibited integration. Quantifying ‘integration’ impacts is challenging given the breadth of the concept and limitations of existing data, but continuing Sophia’s example (above) provides a qualitative illustration:

 

Once Sophia managed to meet the MIR and submit the visa application, her husband gave up work to be available to travel during the narrow visa window, further stretching family finances. The application was successful but Sophia’s mental health has been negatively affected by the experience – she gave up work for a while when her husband arrived, and now can only work part-time. Sophia’s husband works in a supermarket (the only interview he was offered, despite his professional experience). They are still in the 5 year probationary period, attempting to save for further visa fees and related costs from their meagre income. Despite his English language degree, her husband is required to sit English tests - incurring travel and hotel costs to reach the nearest available test site, in addition to the test fee.  In their 40s, they still live with Sophia’s mother to save money, unable to afford the larger mortgage deposit required because of her husband’s temporary visa status.

In this case, the negative integration impacts of the Family Migration regime are clear – creating stressors which impact on health and well-being, ability to work, financial stability, and access to the housing market.

  1. As this case also suggests, the prolonged temporary status of the 5 year probationary period does not facilitate integration. This prolonged dependency of the migrant spouse on their sponsor can also exacerbate domestic power inequalities, creating risks of abuse and with potential implications for migrant spouses’ integration (e.g. where sponsors prevent migrant spouses’ participation in education, employment or social activities). Migrant spouses may not be aware of the domestic violence concession, or may perceived it as risky or hard to prove. 

 

  1. Some policy discourse suggests a further integration rational: preventing some kinds of spousal immigration is presented as promoting integration. The Casey Review and Integrated Communities Strategy suggest that British South Asian Muslims bringing spouses from Pakistan, for example, inhibits integration by creating ‘a first generation in every generation’. This catchy and intuitive phrase is not, however, based in research. Our Marriage Migration and Integration project demonstrated a much more complicated reality. It is often assumed, for example, that migrant Pakistani husbands will bring ‘traditional’ gender ideologies and stop their British wives from working. Quantitative data, however, shows no such correlation between migrant husbands and British Pakistani women’s employment (Charsley et al 2020: 126, Dale & Ahmed 2011), whilst our qualitative research suggests that avoidance of the ‘daughter-in-law’ role, and migrants husband’s position as a lone incomer in his wife’s extended family, mean that some British Pakistani women interviewed viewed marrying a migrant as enhancing rather than reducing their domestic power (Charsley et al 2020:215-9).

 

  1. Identity, including a sense of Britishness, is also part of the concept of integration. Our research suggests that restrictive immigration rules designed to prevent some citizens and settled residents from being able to live with their partner in the UK, and the perception that particular marriages are viewed as suspicious, can undermine a sense of equality of treatment between citizens. One British Pakistani participant, for example, voiced the opinion that the spousal immigration restrictions were ‘targeting the Pakistani community’ (Charsley et al 2020: 251-2).

Conclusion

  1. Problems within the UK’s spouse/partner immigration regime create hardship for families. Extended timelines and excessive costs create family separation including enforced single parenthood, and can trap British citizen/resident sponsors in a cycle of being unable to achieve family unification for long periods, or indefinitely. The integration rationale for the Minimum Income Requirement did not consider the negative integration impacts created by barriers to family unification. Integration discourse is also used to portray some minority marriage practices in a negative light, with negative implications for perceived equality and belonging.

 

  1. Recommendations:
    1. Risk Assess the family migration system from the perspective of the risk of family separation and hardship, as a priority above that of reducing immigration.
    2. Shorten the timelines involved in the family immigration process: Not just visa processing times, but the months of waiting built into MIR, and the extended probationary period.
    3. Reduce fees and costs: This will be increasingly important as the cost of living crisis stretches household finances. Visa fees are much higher than processing costs (Indefinite Leave to Remain fee: £2404, costs £491 to process). Profit should not be sought from visas concerning rights to family life. The wider costs of the process should also be systematically examined and reduced.
    4. Simplify the system: To reduce stress for sponsors and applicants, and reduce the perceived need for costly legal advice.
    5. Abandon the integration rationale for the MIR: This rationale is not based on evidence, and is partial in its understanding of integration. If facilitating the integration of migrant spouses is the goal, research-based suggestions for direct interventions can be found here.
    6. Increase flexibility in the MIR: If the goal of the MIR is to protect the public purse, this must be considered against the costs (financial and otherwise) of family separation. There are arguments about whether the MIR should exist at all, but at a minimum much more flexibility is required in how the MIR is met, to reflect a variety of family circumstances (e.g. the sponsor may not be the main earner; wider family may provide financial support or accommodation; household financial requirements vary).

 

 

13 September 2022

 

References (in addition to those included as hyperlinks. Charsley publications provided on request):

Charsley, K. et al. 2020. Marriage, Migration and Integration. Palgrave MacMillan.

Charsley, K. 2012. Marriage, migration and transnational social spaces. In K. Charsley (ed.) Transnational Marriage Routledge.

Charsley, K. & H. Wray (in preparation). Kept Apart: routine family separation in the UK family immigration system as times of crisis (for Special Issue of Migration Studies).

Dale, A. & S. Ahmed. 2011. Marriage and employment patterns among UK-raised Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. Ethnic and Racial Studies 34 (6): 902-24.

Robertson, S. 2021. Temporality in Mobile Lives University of Bristol Press.

 

 

 


[1] All names in examples are pseudonyms.