‘At the centre of UK immigration policy is the family unit.’ This mission statement used to appear on the Home Office website but not long ago it was abandoned, along with any pretence that concern about family life still has a role to play in deciding immigration policy.
If you don’t accept that this is the case, it’s likely that you haven’t seen the play ‘Love Letters to the Home Office’ or read the stories on its website. The play, which was at Battersea Arts Centre for two nights last week, is performed by four actors who simply sit at a table and tell the real-life stories that have emerged since the Home Office introduced yet another cruel twist to immigration policy in 2012, this time one which affects British citizens as much as those from abroad. The new rules tightened even further the criteria for spouses from outside Europe to join their partners in Britain, notably by requiring the British spouse to be earning at least £18,600 a year. (Someone on the minimum wage would have to work a 55-hour week with no holidays to earn this amount.)
If you think calling this ‘cruel’ might be an exaggeration, look at one of the stories told in the play. Jodie and her son Robert are stuck in the United States even though young Robert is British. The reason? – Jodie is American, she lived in Scotland for years but hadn’t yet married her long-term partner, a university student. Unfortunately her father fell seriously ill in California so she went there temporarily to care for him, taking his grandson for one last visit. To her amazement, when her father died and no longer needed her care she was refused permission to return to the UK, despite having checked with the Home Office beforehand that there would be no problem. The rules had changed, and her student partner didn’t earn enough to meet the requirements for her to get a visa. Young Robert is forced to keep contact with his father only through Skype while Jodie (who has no home in the US) camps out with relatives. Robert gave up his studies to get a job but still doesn’t earn the minimum income level that would enable Jodie to get a visa.
The play is full of stories of love frustrated by Home Office rules. Perhaps the saddest is that of a woman from the Philippines who, unable to join her husband here, saw him only on his occasional visits. On one of these, he tragically died, and she isn’t even allowed to take his ashes back to the UK.
The restrictions affect older relatives too. An NHS surgeon was refused permission to bring his elderly mother to the UK even though he was willing and able to support her. He eventually had to give up his job and move abroad in order to care for her, as he was the only relative she had that could do so. The rules about bringing elderly parents to live here are now so tightly written that, as someone put it, to qualify for a visa a relative has to be so infirm that they wouldn’t be able to make the journey anyway. Presumably this rule is called Catch 22.
The play’s four actors have themselves moved around, although mainly within Britain. However, one is from a second generation British/Indian family and another’s parents are from Grenada. They clearly identify closely with the stories and quickly evoke the audience’s sympathy for the victims. I only have two quarrels with the production. One is that it is too long, risking losing the audience by relating too many of the heart-rending stories.
The other is that the play invites the audience to judge these Home Office restrictions as being in a different category from other Home Office rules, as they affect much smaller numbers than (say) the new limits on foreign students, make little impact on immigration figures and yet impose special hardship on those affected because they separate couples and other close relatives. While I agree that these rules should urgently be revoked, to me they are part of a raft of changes in immigration policy which pay no regard to family life: the detention of woman and children in prison-like conditions at Yarls Wood is an obvious example, and by no means the only one.
Nevertheless, the play and the campaign for change are well worthwhile because they throw light on the human effects of policies which treat migration simply as an issue about numbers. The fact that it affects British people as well as those from abroad gives it added publicity value. ‘Letters to the Home Office’ may not change the minds of Home Secretaries but it is a very useful counterpoint to the Katie Hopkins view of migrants: a reminder that not only are they fellow humans but also loved ones – even perhaps ours.
Original post: Migration Pulse