“My husband is a teacher in South Africa, currently in Jo’burg. We’ve been married for four years, but he might never be able to live here with me and I’ve lost hope. It’s hard to have a marriage over Skype calls.” Noreen Hidgens, 33, is talking to me on the phone from her home in Bristol about challenges in her marriage. Her tone is stoical and frustrated – not because her husband is wilfully absent, but because their separation is what she describes as “at the mercy of judges”.
She’s referring to the government’s current spousal visa system. This means that British citizens residing in the UK must earn the threshold figure of at least £18,600 (incidentally, approx £4,200 more than the national living wage) for their non-EU spouse to reside in the country with them (being able to show long stretches of uninterrupted time living in the UK). In Hidgens’ case, she works as a cleaner in a nearby hospital and volunteers at a local charity while she continues to look for work, but doesn’t yet meet the income requirement.
On paper, the idea that migrant spouses should contribute economically may be a no-brainer, but it’s worth noting that £18,600 excludes 41 per cent of the British working population, including 55 per cent of women, thanks to the gender pay gap, and the hardest hit will be BAME workers. The threshold rises to £22,400 if there is one or more non-European-born child in the family and, crucially, the income of the non-European partner does not count towards the threshold.
So, even if you resided in the UK and were recently laid off work, had physical injury and were unable to work, your high-earning partner couldn't come to the UK.
"This is fostering a hostile environment for migrants and British citizens who dare to love a migrant," says Sonel Mehta, the founder of BritCits, a human-rights charity that aims to “challenge divisive immigration rules” and unite families. It’s clear that, to her, current government regulations effectively keep married couples and families apart. This legislation not only demonises families with migrant spouses, but hits non-London residents and female BAME workers (Pakistani and Bangladeshi women see biggest overall gender pay gap at 26 per cent) the hardest.
Black African women experience the largest full-time gender pay gap at 19.6 per cent, according to the Fawcett Society, and suffer under the ethnic pay gap, too – meaning that immigrant communities are doubly hit.
"It's an attack on British citizens who have foreign families," she says. "It's almost a penalty for falling in love with a foreigner.”
It’s a line that is gaining traction with campaigners. The regulations really took effect last July, but the issue has been in the news again recently, thanks to the case of Irene Clennell back in February. Clennell had been living in the UK for 30 years (and married for 27), residing in County Durham with her husband and two children. Last month, she was deported back to Singapore.
It's an attack on British citizens who have foreign families – almost a penalty for falling in love with a foreigner
In Clennell’s case, the deportation was on the grounds that she lost her indefinite leave to remain (ILR) status after staying too long, caring for her parents.
In the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto, Cameron stated that “'As you raise your family, we will help you with childcare" – suggesting that making family life easier was a central part of British life – but how true is this really?
A 2014 book called Love Letters To The Home Office compiled first-hand stories of heartbreak and loss in relation to this legislation and goes some way towards answering this question. The project describes itself as reacting to this income requirement “alongside other regulations as allowing the home office to legally separate husbands from wives, parents from children, and tear apart entire families". According to editor Kellie, the book was a result of fellow editor Katharine and her husband’s experience.
“Her husband is Monte Negran,” she says. “A month after she was married, the rule was passed and she did not meet the income requirement. So they spent the first 18 months of married life living in separate countries.”
The book tells the stories of around 30 people like Ouliad, who writes in the book, “We have been married since June 2013, yet a common theme of our marriage is tears. Each time I return home, I must do so alone, leaving her behind. The right to enjoy happy days with my wife has been stripped from me.”
It makes the case that life in Britain is difficult for couples caught in the middle of love-filled, but border-restricted, marriages.
For Kellie, it’s simple. “It limits your right to family life which is in direct contravention of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act [Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence],” she says.
The reality is that the rules that inspired these stories haven't changed much. As they currently stand, many see marriage as an effective political tool to anchor the “hostile environment” for immigrants in the UK, which Theresa May has previously advocated for.
The latest ruling from the Supreme Court has said that, moving forward, the minimum-income requirement stays, but there needs to be an amendment to the rules to ensure that the best interests of children is a primary consideration, and if other sources of income can contribute towards this figure. Whether or not these changes will be the next chapter in the state of British marriages remains to be seen. For Noreen, currently looking for work and maintaining a grainy Skype relationship around time differences and work hours, she’s doing what she can to lift the restrictions to her marriage. “I’ll carry on cleaning,” she says. “Then maybe my husband will get here and become a teacher… let’s see.”