There are many questions people ask once they hear you’re getting married. When you’re a binational couple one of these questions is: “Where are you going to live?”
It’s not that easy a question to answer. As young, fresh graduates, we could potentially live anywhere. But the only answer we have so far is, “Not the UK.”
Neither of us have a problem with Great Britain. I’ve been here over a year now, and have received nothing but kindness and generosity from the people I’ve met. Yet my time is limited: my visa runs out at the end of January. Most people don’t see that as a problem since we’re getting married, but it’s not that simple. As it turns out, getting married doesn’t guarantee you a visa to remain in the country; that probably only happens in movies.
In an effort to drastically cut down the number of immigrants entering the UK, the government has changed a whole range of immigration policies. The Post-Study Work Visa, which allows international students to stay and find work in the UK after they graduate, is gone. The spousal visa has also changed. A binational couple will only be able to get a spousal visa if the British spouse earns an income of £18,600 a year (and has been earning that for at least six months). 47% of people in employment in the UK are unable to meet this financial threshold. The foreign spouse’s income is not taken into account.
This might not be as big a problem in London, where wages are likely to be higher. The same report linked above found that 29% of Londoners in employment will not be able to meet the requirement; the number shoots up to 48% when looking at Scotland, where we currently live. It’s yet another sign of how British policymakers are often London-centric in their outlook.
This has been justified as a move to reduce the number of people claiming benefits, thus relieving the burden on the taxpayer. Yet there is little evidence to show that a significant number of foreign spouses are claiming benefits from the UK government in the first place. In fact, research has shown the opposite to be true – by imposing such a requirement the government could be losing money.
Sarah and her husband Chalermchon could illustrate this particular point. She works as an editor, while he’s a university lecturer. They have two children, both of whom have been granted British citizenship, but Chalermchon will not get a visa until Sarah can earn £18,600 a year in the UK. To do that, she would have to leave her family – or take her two children with her as a single parent – to find employment in the UK and work her way up to that amount. Refusing to do so, the whole family now lives in Thailand, their skills and expertise (and tax dollars) out of the UK’s reach.
Before Calum and I finished our degrees and moved up to Scotland we had thought it might still be possible for us to stay; perhaps I could find a job on my own merits and get a work visa. Or Calum would soon get a job that pays enough for us to meet the criteria.
As the weeks and months went by our situation grew more and more depressing. I had only been called for one job interview, a part-time position that was never going to pay me enough to get a work visa. The interview went well, but the interviewers weren’t sure if my lack of a permanent visa was going to be a problem. They said they would check with their bosses. For whatever reason, I never heard back.
Other attempts to apply for work, work experience or internships also came to nothing. Competition was so fierce that I didn’t even make it through the final screening rounds to be a trainee at the BBC, something I had thought my professional experience would at least get me. Zip. Nada. Dozens of edited CVs and cover letters got me nowhere except closer to my visa expiry date.
Calum wasn’t having much luck either. Journalism jobs – already not the easiest of industries – are scarce in Scotland at the moment, and competition is fierce. Every vacant position gets piles and piles of applications, and you don’t know if yours even gets read. Besides, the appetite for free labour is huge; Calum went to one job interview where the interviewer spent her time chastising him for not having worked for free – for “experience” reasons, you see – before trying to apply for paid work. In today’s job market, free labour is not a bonus but an expectation.
Meeting the financial requirement isn’t as easy as not going on the dole or finding a job. We learnt this the hard way, and I later heard our experience mirrored in the accounts of others.
Take Noriko and William, for instance. Right now, she’s living in Japan with their baby daughter, while he’s here in Scotland. He works as a chef and hasn’t been able to meet the required amount. Settling down in Japan proved a no-go when he found it difficult to adjust (both the culture shock and the language barrier were problems), while she struggled to support the family on a single income. Having a baby daughter who is a British citizen apparently doesn’t count, at least not until William is able to earn the ‘right’ amount of money. “I feel as if my life as a family is stuck at the moment,” Noriko wrote to me in an email.
She isn’t the only one who feels that way. When I Skyped Amanda, she told me that she and her husband Phil are living in limbo. After graduating, Phil has had trouble finding a full-time job that meets the criteria. Unable to meet that financial requirement, they’d been living apart for seven months before she could travel to the UK to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. They’re now in the process of applying for an American spousal visa for Phil to move to the US, but the process is slow, especially after it was affected by the government shutdown in October. “There’s a lot of hanging around waiting,” she says of their visa troubles. “You can’t plan.”
It’s hugely unfair. We aren’t talking about scam marriages or “benefit scroungers”, two scenarios so often used by the government to scare-monger and twist the immigration debate. We’re talking about ordinary families. Couples who love each other. Parents with children. People who just want to be together. And the major thing keeping them apart is money. Noriko, Amanda and Sarah aren’t the only ones with such stories: the charity BritCits has a long, depressing list of families who have been divided by the financial requirement (and other administrative issues).
At a time of rapid globalisation, when travelling has never been so easy, it’s no surprise that people will meet and fall in love with someone from beyond their home country’s borders. Throwing up such obstacles for binational couples makes little sense; people aren’t going to stop getting married to those they love. Lucky ones might just leave the country and settle elsewhere, taking their skills and ability to work with them, in which case the country loses out. Those who aren’t as fortunate will have to suffer the pain of being separated from their spouse and even their children, for no reason apart from not earning enough money to satisfy the state.
The loss from the breaking up of families cannot simply be counted in dollars and cents. In many ways the UK is a brilliant country, and when the time comes I will be genuinely sorry to go. There will be family and friends left behind that we will miss very much, but right now we see no other way.