Maddie Grounds, of leading UK immigration lawyers the Immigration Advice Service, explains the “Brexit effect” on UK spouse visas.
Obtaining a UK spouse visa continues to be a notoriously difficult process to undertake. While we know that money can’t buy love, it seems the Home Office is doing everything they can to subvert this doctrine. With huge costs and strict visa requirements, it is not surprising that applications for spouse visas have some of the highest refusal rates across all visa categories, leaving too many reliant on strong wifi and mutual availability in different time zones to communicate overseas to loved ones.
Meeting the UK spouse visa criteria
For those looking to relocate or start their family in the UK, fulfilling the demanding costs of a UK spouse visa is an obstacle many literally cannot afford to overcome. The current minimum income requirement stands at £18,600, (€21,559) rising by £3,800 (€4,404) for one child and a further £2,400 (€2,782) per additional child after the first. However, as many as 41 per cent of the British population do not earn enough money to bring their husband or wife to the UK under the income criteria, according to fact checking body Full Fact.
Families who are fortunate enough to overcome these steep expenses are required to take the Home Office’s meticulous “genuine relationship” test to determine the legitimacy of the marriage. Caseworkers assess an array of documents to extract any signs of fraudulence.
Yet excessive scrutiny of every application has led to innocent couples being refused a visa and denied their human right to a family life, both in cases where they have failed to produce the demanded documents or even where they have submitted too much evidence. To cripple their chances of obtaining a UK spouse visa even further, a statement of immigration changes this March revealed that the Secretary of State reserves the right to refuse an application entirely if an applicant misses just one interview, regardless of whether they meet the visa requirements.
If an application is rejected, there are few alternatives for couples looking to begin their lives together in the UK. While obtaining a work visa may seem like a viable option, its income requirement of £30,000 (€34,777) means that only those in high paying, highly skilled jobs will have a chance of success. The inability to acquire a visa has devastating repercussions for parents and loved ones, many of whom will miss out on cherishing first moments, birthdays, Christmases and wedding anniversaries.
According to the Children’s Commissioner for England, there are at least 15,000 children separated from a parent because of the UK’s stringent immigration income rules. Unnecessary and cruel immigration enforcements immorally put a price tag on a child’s right to see their parents, shattering a family’s chance of unification and punishing them for not earning enough money. So the question remains: why do these tragedies keep occurring?
Cracking down on sham marriages
Last year, a Freedom of Information request by the Guardian uncovered 2,863 marriage registrations indicated as a “potential” sham – a rise of 40 per cent compared to the number of cases flagged in 2014. No doubt the Government’s “hostile environment” policy has been a catalyst for this continuing upsurge, with intensified scepticism towards migrants underpinning immigration policies since its implementation in 2013. The Home Office’s tightening of the “good character” criterion was just one way of signalling this era of hostility, a test which was once responsible for imposing innocent migrants with a 322(5)-terrorism clause against their name.
While the Home Office withholds the exact number of identified sham marriages found unlawful, many genuine couples have fallen into the system’s traps. Reports found that couples had their wedding ceremonies interrupted by investigators; and others had been interrogated with intense and humiliating questions about their intimate lives.
Although the Government’s intentions of catching perpetrators of sham marriages do require rigorous investigations, difficulties arise in determining the motives behind a couple’s choice to marry. In cases where a couple are genuinely together and in a long term relationship, UK spouse visa applications can still be denied if there is any evidence of marrying for immigration purposes, otherwise known as a “marriage of convenience” – but why should it even matter if the couple marries both for love and for a UK spouse visa?
If any cases of invasion of privacy are to be deemed acceptable, they should be utilised to uncover the common, yet predominantly hidden, occurrences of forced marriage in the UK. With over 1,000 forced marriage cases reported last year, many British women and underage girls continue to be sold and married off abroad against their will – forcibly returned to the UK with their abuser, who can reside in the UK on a spouse visa.
Time and time again, these cases slip through the cracks in the system, with many abusers managing to bypass the stringent checks designed to flag the dangers that victims are set to face in the UK. With many girls and women having never met their fiancés before their wedding day, the Home Office fails to spot the clear warning signs of human rights abuses – instead granting perpetrators with a UK spouse visa anyway.
The Brexit effect
With UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s new skills-based plan setting out the future for UK immigration, it is likely that “skype families” across Europe will increase. From 2021, all European entrants will need to apply for a visa after losing their previous right to freedom of movement across UK-EU borders. For multinational EU-UK couples, this equates to the same strict UK spouse visa requirements and Home Office interrogations as their current non-EU counterparts. Some EU partners will have until 29 March 2022 to acquire the necessary visa, however they will need to prove that their relationship existed beforehand. Successful couples will then have to put their devotion to the test once again – two and a half years later – to seek a spouse visa extension.
While the hot topic of Brexit continues to focus on political havoc over UK-EU trading relationships, it is the segregation of loved ones that puts the happiness of innocent families and couples at the greatest risk. What should be a process of facilitation is becoming increasingly obstructive, hindering the reunion of loving couples and families due to a careless and subjective application process. Humanitarianism should be at the heart of our immigration system, protecting those who have every right to benefit from the opportunities of a UK spouse visa.