Families that need £18,600 to spend Christmas together

Published in The Independent (December 19th, 2013)

Like any father, Ethan James Feltham was looking forward to Christmas with his wife and their new son. But instead he must pack up the presents and put them in the post, for his young family will spend the festive period 10,000 miles apart from each other on different sides of the world. ‘It’s just so disappointing,’ he told me ruefully.

This man may have risked his life in Afghanistan as a member of the armed forces, but British bureaucrats do not believe his Fijian wife – met through a military friend – will leave if she comes to stay. And although he works some 60 hours a week as a restaurant chef, the 23-year-old’s earnings fall a few hundred pounds short of the shameful earnings threshold imposed on British citizens wanting to bring their spouses to live here.

‘No one in South Wales takes home the £18,600 they say you need to earn,’ said Feltham. ‘So I applied twice for them to visit for Christmas but they turned us down each time. It feels so disrespectful for these people to tell an ex-soldier they think he is lying.’

He is right – it is disgusting. Unfortunately, his trauma is far from unique. Innocent families are being torn apart, victims of our nation’s toxic backlash against immigration. While most Britons prepare for the holiday period, this small minority are forbidden to see spouses and children by zealous officials and a thicket of new regulations imposed by panic-stricken politicians.

A new report by Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) highlights 63 such cases. They include Lizzie, daughter of a Tory councillor, whose Ecuadorian doctor husband cannot visit his baby in Britain. Dee, a Canadian who came to see her husband of six years but was sent home after two horrifying days in a detention centre. And Mary, a nursery nurse from North Carolina, similarly stunned to be stuck in a detention unit after coming to visit her partner.

Welcome to Britain? Not these days. Such is the fear factor over immigration and the Government’s desire to hit its ludicrous cap that officials, driven on by their political masters, are becoming even more hostile to visitors from outside the European Union. After all, beyond tweaking the benefits system and making threatening noises, there is nothing that can be done to stop people coming here from Germany and France, let alone those Bulgarians and Romanians, short of withdrawing from the club.

So put aside the reality that migrants are more entrepreneurial, more likely to drive up educational skills and more likely to boost prosperity than natives. And less likely to claim benefits, of course. Instead, we see politicians on all sides demonstrate a disgraceful lack of leadership by pandering to populist alarm against immigrants, despite their key role in our economic revival. So woe betide Britons foolish enough to fall in love with a foreigner.

The Coalition proclaims itself an advocate of marriage and supporter of hard-working families, but new rules introduced last year make it harder to bring in foreign husbands, wives and children. If you are poor, forget it – you must have disposable annual income of at least £18,600 to sponsor your spouse; this excludes nearly half the working population. And such are the nerves over failing to hit that silly cap people are being rejected on the most spurious grounds, such as minor form infringements; numbers entering on a spouse visa have fallen 25 per cent in a year.

Not only are families divided – up to 17,800 a year may be ripped apart by these new rules according to one government estimate –  but it appears officials are becoming more active preventing people even visiting their partners for fear they might overstay. ‘We are seeing lots more of these cases,’ said Ruth Grove-White, policy director at MRN. ‘People are getting desperate because it has been made so difficult to come here for important family occasions such as the birth of their child, weddings and funerals.’

This is just the tip of a cruel iceberg. Britain’s visa system is torturous, driving away millions who wish to spend money in our shops, visit our tourist sites and seal deals with our businesses. It is suspected one in four applicants abandon plans to visit, costing the economy about £750m each year. Yet there is no measure of the anger when decent people are treated like criminals and turned away by arrogant officials; I have heard the legacy of bitterness often in Africa and Asia.

I have seen also the hurdles people must jump to come here through the Africa Express music project. Earlier this month, we invited Malian artists – including Songhoy Blues, a guitar band from Timbuktu, and Bijou, a soul singer – to play an album launch concert. Since there is no British consulate in Bamako, they had to fly to Dakar in Senegal, then wait several days for an appointment with a British official. Having already spent £500 each, they had to hand over another £200 for a visa and provide a welter of paperwork; this can include bank statements and utility bills, which many Africans do not possess. Then the passports went to Ghana for several weeks, during which time they could not travel – and if the application returns too late or is rejected, there is no recompense.

We were lucky – the visas came on the last day possible to get here. Increasingly they are turned down; a celebrated Pakistani jazz ensemble had to cancel a concert in London last month for this reason, despite having just played the Lincoln Centre in New York. The previous month, a renowned Algerian historian in his eighties was unable to deliver a keynote speech at Oxford University; officials said he could not prove he was not planning to settle in  Britain.

This is what happens when fear of foreigners contaminates politics and corrodes society. Amid talk of a global race, our country is losing money along with goodwill in some of the world’s fastest-growing regions. And among the biggest losers of these self-defeating policies are thousands of British people, who merely married someone from another country. Think of them this Christmas.

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