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from where? Castro’s Cuba? Franco’s Spain? Apartheid South Africa? Well, now you can add David Cameron’s UK to that list. And no, that’s not a typo, nor am I about to make a leftie jibe about people who can’t bear to live under the Tories or another series of Downton Abbey. I’m talking about real exiles; people who cannot go back to their homeland. People like me. Today marks the first anniversary of draconian changes introduced by the UK government to the rules under which family visas are issued. That is visas for spouses and adult/elderly relatives from anywhere outside the EEA (EU nations plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). The changes are affecting thousands of British expats around the world who either want to return home with their families or bring relatives to live with them in the UK. In my own case, my Australian wife and I planned a 2013 return to England with our two sons after almost 5 years in Sydney. But when we looked into getting her a visa earlier this year – something I’d always assumed would be a simple formality – we discovered it would be impossible. When Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the new rules on July 9 th 2012, there were two key features. First, the Brit (and only the Brit) had to have an income of £18,600 before the visa could even be applied for. Second, the probationary period before permanent residency was granted (‘indefinite leave to remain’ or ILR), increased from two years to five. What’s proved to be the most iniquitous change is this new financial hurdle. To many it won’t seem like a huge amount of money. To me it’s not a huge amount of money. But a report last month by the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration [hyperlink http://www.appgmigration.org.uk/sites/default/files/APPG_family_migration_in quiry_report-Jun-2013.pdf] on the impact of the changes contained one of the most significant facts to emerge. Almost half of all people working in the UK (47%) earn less than £18,600. On that basis, almost half of the Brits wanting to get a visa for their significant other are doomed to failure. But that, it seems, is what the whole exercise is about. Theresa May (or The Dark Lord as I now cast her) has vowed to reduce net migration to below 100,000 by the general election in 2015. And seeing as it’s been a political football and a hard nut to crack for as long as I can remember, the Dark Lord has had to get ruthless to avoid being caught up like her predecessors in these clichés. Foreign husbands, wives and elderly mums and dads are the easy target of her wrath. The Home Office’s own estimate states that almost 18,000 fewer family visas outside the EEA would be granted each year as a
result of the changes. For a politician with few options it’s a no-brainer. The visa rules not only discriminate against those with low incomes but are clearly sexist too, as they work against couples where the Brit is a woman and a full-time mum. That’s not the case with me. I could probably pass the financial hurdle myself. I’m a TV producer and could realistically earn a lot more than £18,600. But I’m freelance and, strange as it may seem, it’s hard to line up a job back in the UK while living in Australia. Then, even if I did find a job, it could be to start in a week’s time and last only a few weeks. The only way I could likely find the job necessary to allow my wife to submit her visa application would be to return alone to the UK. Many Brits are doing this and news coverage of the APPG report reflected the “anguish” this causes. But I will not be apart from my wife and sons for what could be months. Nor can I afford to maintain a home for them in Australia while I am not earning. It all shows how Conservative claims to be the party of the family, and of encouraging people to spend within their means, are patently not true. It also shows what little understanding the Party has of how international business works, when many of those unable to get visas are high earners working at senior level. But the change that has left me exiled is not the financial one. It is the extension of the probationary period. My wife wants to train as a midwife, which you can only do in the UK with an NHS bursary. You can’t get that bursary if there is any question mark over your residency. So she would have to wait five years before even applying to study. For my wife, who hated the prospect of leaving her vast, sunny, prosperous, homeland for the small, grey, depressed place I still love, her new career was the one personal incentive she could find for going (the irony of this foreigner being dragged kicking and screaming by me back into Fortress Britain would surely be lost on The Dark Lord). For me the cruelest thing to realise is that before last July my wife could have got ILR straight away. Couples who had been married for four years or more were deemed to be in a genuine relationship. I had also hoped that she might get a British passport, which you can get three years after ILR. Now she would have to wait eight years. I consider the five-year wait for ILR and the eight-year one for a passport to be unreasonably long. The government’s argument is it makes it harder for sham marriages and is a period in which the applicant can integrate into society. To me it feels as if there is a presumption of criminality that I find offensive. I do not want my wife to spend that long as an outsider when she’s already lived in the UK for four years on an ancestry visa. She’s pretty well assimilated thanks very much. What’s more, in marrying me she cemented a lifelong connection to Britain. Her grandfather was British. Her mother holds a British passport. What’s more, she created Britons!!! Anyone who pushes two eight-pound bundles of Britishness out of their vajayjay deserves to be treated with a bit more respect by HM
Government. It all highlights what for me is the most glaring revelation of the whole sad story. That The Dark Lord and her colleagues, in their zeal to keep people out, show no understanding of the emotional and logistical complexity that international relationships face. It’s assumed couples make the decision about where they live for life, or at least the very long term. But neither my wife nor I could face the idea of spending the rest of our lives in each other’s countries. Our plan had always been to go back for a few years, as my parents are now in their 70s, but return to Australia at the latest when our oldest son starts high school (so maximum eight years). I am also conscious that my sons, who hold British passports, could well choose to live in the UK or Europe when they are grown up, so I imagined another period in the UK then. And looking furthest into the future, I hoped I might spend my own last days living back in England. In that pattern of a few years here, a few years there, I wanted my wife to have the ease of travel and the security that a British passport offers. With an eight-year wait, that is now out of the question. So I have spent the past few months trying to make sense of living in what feels like a Kafka plot. Of struggling to contain my panic when I think I will never again call England home. Of feeling such utter sadness that I am forced to choose between my loved ones in England and my new family here. A few times I have wondered what would happen if I called the British Consulate General and asked for help: Me: Hello, I’m being prevented from returning to the UK, I need your help! Consulate-General: Who is preventing you from going back? Me: The British government! Consulate-General: ...[long silence then sound of receiver hanging up]. So I must now get used to calling Australia home. I got my Citizenship in January because I wanted to share my sons’ dual nationality and also get the freedom of movement I had wanted for my wife. My process in reverse, of coming here, getting residency and then a passport, has been a credit to Australia’s immigration system: simple, efficient and courteous. And it has taken half the time it now takes an Aussie to do it gong to the UK. For years the system between the two countries has been largely reciprocal. Now there is a huge imbalance. The current Labor government says it has no plans to change its rules. But maybe if Australia did, and other countries followed suit, perhaps fewer Brits would leave the UK –and that could put a big dent in The Dark Lord’s plans to reduce net migration. And as the enormity of what the Tories have done starts to sink in, maybe fewer people will risk going overseas, because if they fall in love with Johnny Foreigner they might never be able to return. Something again I doubt The Dark Lord has thought
through, with all the attendant costs (I’ve already saved the UK taxpayer thousands of pounds by having my hip replaced under the Australian health system and by not claiming child benefit). So what might have seemed like a smart idea by the Tory right wing could prove to be costly. And the movement challenging the visa changes is growing all the time. But I doubt the rules will ever be reversed. Any votes the Tories might lose over this are far outweighed by the drubbing they fear from UKIP – and their response to that threat has been to get tough on immigration. Faced with a poisonous climate on immigration, I hold little hope that a change in government would see a return to the old spouse visa rules. There is a demonstration today outside the Home Office and I hope the protestors are successful in getting some humanity and common sense back into the family visa system. For myself, and many others, it is already too late. I am trying to resign myself to exile in Australia; aware that is a goal many asylum seekers lose their lives trying to achieve. And though exile doesn’t seem a very British thing, exile it is.