'Hostile environment': the hardline Home Office policy tearing families apart

Theresa May has relentlessly pledged to make life as difficult as possible for illegal immigrants, but the harsh measures are also wrecking the lives of people who have a right to be here

It is a boast that Theresa May has been repeating for the past five years. “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants,” she said in 2012 when, as home secretary, she was challenged on why annual net immigration, then running at about 250,000, was stubbornly above the Conservatives’ controversial “tens of thousands” target.

It was, the Telegraph noted, a rare moment when a politician who otherwise chose her language with “feline delicacy”, avoiding “a few stray words or a rash promise”, allowed it to become “uncharacteristically vivid”.

Despite her “safety-first” approach to public statements, May obviously liked that vividness. She has taken to repeating the phrase on demand. In August, it was chosen as one of her most powerful quotes. Perhaps she feels it deflects the reality of the situation: despite the recent 84,000 fall in annual net migration to 248,000 – much of it due to the return home of highly skilled EU nationals insecure about their post-Brexit status in the UK – her target is still nowhere in sight. This is not due to any lack of effort on May’s part: during her six years as home secretary, she presided over seven immigration bills and 45,000 changes to the immigration rules.

Since the EU referendum, detentions and enforced removals of all foreign nationals, including EU citizens, have risen sharply. Analysis of government data shows deportations of EU citizens are at their highest since records began, with 5,301 EU nationals removed during the year ending June 2017, an increase of 20% on the previous 12 months. More broadly, the number of EU citizens detained has increased sixfold since 2009. Critics believe that Brexit has, in effect, given the Home Office the green light to target Europeans in the UK.

Relentlessly, inexorably, any British citizen who has simply had the temerity to fall in love with a foreigner and wishes to live in the country of their birth with their family is finding themselves at the wrong end of an uncaring bureaucracy. As is anyone living in the UK without the right paperwork, even if that paperwork was given to them when they moved here as children. As is any foreign national who finds themselves accused of wrongdoing, even if they dispute the accusations and have been living an organised, tax-paying life here in the UK for many years. Or any EU national who, thanks to legislation last year, is found sleeping rough.

“The Conservatives seem hellbent on creating a hostile environment for anyone not from the UK,” says the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Ed Davey. “These scare tactics should be beneath any civilised government.”

The tactics, however, are multiplying: landlords are now required to carry out checks on tenants’ immigration status. Hospitals, community interest companies and charities receiving NHS funds must conduct ID checks on patients before treatment in order to bill them if they are found not eligible for NHS care. From January, banks and building societies will be compelled to carry out immigration checks on the owners of 70m current accounts.

In a post-Brexit Britain, the picture is set to get even harsher. The right under which EU nationals can bring family members, including spouses, to live with them in the UK is already a flashpoint in the Brexit talks on citizens’ rights. But in October, a leaked Home Office document suggested the government wants to go further in weakening family reunion rights for EU nationals in Britain, turning thousands more into so-called “Skype families”.

But May’s “hostile environment” is already wrecking lives – as the following stories show.

James and Nancileigh with baby Sammy
James and Nancileigh with baby Sammy and his two older siblings. ‘I can’t describe the desperation I feel’ Photograph: Christina Doyle

The Skype families: ‘This country has tried its hardest to shun me and my husband’

Four-year-old Samuel has a subtype of glycosylation, PGM1, one of the rarest congenital disorders in the world. He is at constant risk of seizures, cannot control his own body temperature and must receive nightly feeds through a tube inserted into his stomach. There is no cure and no effective treatment. But his parents – both NHS medics – want to keep their boy at home. It is, they say, the best thing both for Samuel and the cash-strapped NHS.

“Sammy’s health is only optimal when Nancileigh, a critical care nurse, and I care for him,” says James, Sammy’s father, an intensive care consultant. “Nancileigh is Sammy’s registered carer. I maintain our income.”

James is British, and Nancileigh Australian. The family – including the couple’s two older children, aged 10 and 7 – moved to the UK from Australia in June 2014. In February this year, Nancileigh applied to extend her spouse visa, due to run out in April. “The Home Office refused,” she says, her voice trembling. “We were devastated. I don’t like to be more than 15 minutes away from Samuel and here was the Home Office, without talking to my son’s doctors, telling me my son would be fine if I flew to the other side of the world for at least six months while I applied again.

“They told me there were no ‘exceptional circumstances’ preventing me from doing this,” she says. “The exact words they used were that ‘there was no compelling evidence to show that your son [can’t] avail himself of the services of his local social services or his NHS team’. I was beside myself.”

The family got a lawyer and appealed. But the prognosis wasn’t good: “Our lawyer said my appeal would take 18 months, by which time my visa would have run out and I’d have had to leave the country anyway – which would automatically cause my appeal to be revoked.”

The lawyer told Nancileigh that her only real choice was to take the family on “holiday” to Australia for six months, the minimum amount of time it takes the Home Office to process a spousal visa, and reapply. “But my daughter was applying for secondary schools and leaving the country would have jeopardised that. And what about James’s job? He can’t just walk away from it for six months. I can’t describe the desperation I felt.”

Nancileigh told some mothers at the school gate about her plight, and they organised a campaign, persuading at least 50 people to email their local MP – who happens to be health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Hunt rang the family and promised to personally take up their battle. Two weeks later – on 13 November – Nancileigh’s visa was in her hand.

“I’m still deeply shocked by the experience,” she says. “The Home Office rang and apologised to us, but didn’t explain what had gone wrong. The thing is, it’s turned out fine for us, but what about people who don’t have any friends, or an engaged, influential MP? Or, frankly, who aren’t middle class and vocal? It’s a terrible system. It’s really unfair”

The family is far from alone. Unable to get answers from the Home Office, thousands of divided families are seeking support online over their stalled and blocked applications for spouse visas. Social media groups are proliferating: I Love My Foreign Spouse, with 11,830 members, and UK Spouse Visa, with 5,504 members, are the two most popular. Other sites, including British Expats have threads of more than a hundred of pages where families share their anguish and beg for advice.

Earlier this year, Hugh Evans, a contract software engineer and British-Australian dual national, decided to move to the UK with his Japanese wife and three-year-old son, Alfred, an Australian national. “I realised that I needed to prove that I was settled in the UK before applying for a settlement visa for my wife, so I moved here in February while my wife and son returned to Japan. It took me four months to achieve what the Home Office required and we made the application in June.”

A settlement visa should take 12 weeks to process. It wasn’t, however, until five months later that Evans finally got an answer: the visa for his wife and son had been rejected. The Home Office said he hadn’t submitted his marriage certificate and proof of income. Evans insists that the missing marriage certificate must be a clerical error on the part of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the directorate within the Home Office responsible for processing visa applications for anyone who is not a resident of the EU, EEA or Switzerland and wishes to visit the UK for longer than six months. “It was scanned in with the rest of application,” he says. “I don’t know exactly which document I missed for the proof of income, but being self-employed made it extraordinarily complex and I provided my bank statements. We’re devastated. The psychological toll is affecting my work and I’ve fallen into a state of depression. My son’s English has deteriorated during his time in Japan, and it breaks my heart that I can’t even talk to him on Skype any more. Over four months of separation and £3,000 later, and we’re back to square one. We can appeal the decision and enter a whole new realm of uncertainty, or we can pony up and re-apply. Neither of these will get my wife and son back before Christmas.”

It is hard to get up-to-date information out of the Home Office about applications for settlement visas. A Freedom of Information request remains unanswered and the latest complete figures are from 2015, when the home affairs committee published a highly critical report about UKVI. The committee cited a growing backlog in processing applications and criticised the way UKVI “shifts the goalposts” without consultation or explanation. It also expressed disquiet about a lack of transparency – vast numbers of “non-straightforward” cases are excluded from its performance benchmarks. While its standards plummet, the Home Office continues to make profits of up to 800% on immigration applications from families, many of whom are eligible to live in the UK but are turned down on technicalities and forced to reapply – and pay again.

Analysis of Home Office figures on the fees for applications shows a vast discrepancy between how much it costs the government to process each immigration application and the fee it charges applicants. The department charges £2,297 for an application for indefinite leave to enter or remain (per person for the main applicant and every dependant), a rise of 22.5% on 2016-17. It costs £252 to process each application.

Immigration minister Damian Green announced in 2011 that the government would charge high fees as part of a deliberate attempt to offset cuts to the funding of the immigration system. The Home Office claims the approach is correct and says it is a step to reduce the burden on the taxpayer. But as the atmosphere over immigration has soured, the size of the margins raises concerns that the department, which has had 24.9% cuts to its £10.6bn annual budget, has substantial incentives to turn down applicants over minor details, forcing them to pay a second time when reapplying.

Dean with his Brazilian husband Bruno
Dean with his Brazilian husband Bruno: ‘This whole process has been terrible’ Photograph: Handout

The Home Office has also been criticised over a new charge of £5.48 for anyone contacting UKVI from overseas by email. Jan Doerfel, an immigration lawyer, says: “In the light of the immense existing visa costs, the introduction of email fees is adding insult to injury and constitutes a dangerous precedent for charging for customer services more broadly.”

A Home Office spokesman says its approach is only right and ensures that “those who benefit directly from it contribute appropriately”. The spokesman says fee levels aim to “strike a balance between generating income and maintaining global competitiveness”.

In the absence of up-to-date statistics, those who fear the mission creep of May’s “really hostile environment” can only look at anecdotes, such as those recorded on an explosion of social media sites. Numerous families fighting to live together in the UK tell me their applications have been judged “not straighforward” or “complex” and so can’t be processed to UKVI’s published deadlines. These include families applying to renew existing visas who insist their situation is exactly the same as when their visas were first granted. Other families have had their cases shunted into immigration limbo because of missed documentation: information they and their solicitors insist was submitted, or that they didn’t submit because the Home Office’s own website didn’t say – or didn’t say clearly – that it was mandatory.

These families try everything to get answers from UKVI about delays: paying for Priority Service, escalating complaints, spending hours fruitlessly trying to get answers from costly UKVI helplines and contacting their MPs. These families can spend months separated on opposite sides of the world, watching their children grow up over Skype.

Some families are giving up. Dean is a British primary school teacher who married Bruno, a Brazilian banker, in South America last year. Dean regulated his own status in Brazil in one week at minimal cost. By comparison, it took Bruno 16 months and £5,000 to get his spousal visa to the UK. “The Home Office turned us down twice on technicalities that were overturned by a judge at a 15-minute tribunal,” says Dean. “This whole process has been terrible and has had a huge impact on our relationship. It’s been so traumatic that, even though Bruno now has his visa, we’re considering leaving the UK.

“Male primary teachers are desperately needed in the UK and Bruno has a lot to offer this county, too, but I no longer really care what this country needs: it tried its hardest to shun my husband and shun me, too. Why do I owe it anything any more?”


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

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