Britain’s “minimum income requirement” restricts citizens and legal residents who earn less than £18,600 ($24,000) from bringing their spouses from outside Europe to live with them. Journalist Ismail Einashe looks at the consequences of this threshold, advanced by now-Prime Minister Theresa May when she was home secretary, on parents and children. Einashe describes how the 2012 law has created thousands of “Skype families” who go years without seeing one another, and how its opponents warn it will lead to a brain drain from the United Kingdom.
London—Mustafa has not seen his father for three years, a painful absence that often comes to his mind during the daily school run. “Where is my father?” he asks his mother, Muhado, at the gates of his elementary school in north London. “Why is he not taking me to school like the other children?”
It’s not an easy question for her to answer. Explaining to a child that the government doesn’t think you earn enough for the family to be together can’t be pleasant. Muhado says she has run out of responses to her son’s question and no longer replies when he asks.
For the 26-year-old naturalized British citizen, who requested that her children’s and husband’s real names not be used to protect their privacy, the morning trip to school is one more reminder of the difficulties she faces a decade after fleeing civil war in her native Somalia and arriving in the U.K. as a teenage refugee. “Life is very hard for me,” she said. “The father of my children is not here and they do not understand.”
While she struggles to raise Mustafa and his younger brother, Abdi, in a housing project in a high-poverty neighborhood of London, her husband, Ahmed, ekes out a living in Dubai. Also Somali-born, he takes odd jobs and occasionally works as a taxi driver. The pair, who were introduced by family and married on a visit to Ethiopia in 2012, have spent most of their marriage apart. They were last together three years ago, when Muhado took the children to Dubai. But she has been unable to afford another set of plane tickets, so Skype and WhatsApp have to fill the void.
Marriages like Muhado and Ahmed’s are increasingly common. Thousands of families are being kept apart as a result of migration rules introduced by the U.K. government five years ago.
In 2012, the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government passed the so-called “minimum income requirement” (MIR) as part of a broader crackdown on immigration. The change means that British citizens and U.K. residents must prove they earn a minimum annual salary of £18,600 ($24,000) before they can apply to bring in a spouse from countries outside the European Economic Area. This figure increases by £3,800 ($4,900) to sponsor a first child, and £2,400 ($3,100) for each additional offspring.
The MIR was the brainchild of now-Prime Minister Theresa May when she served as home secretary, the cabinet position responsible for border enforcement. The rationale for the rule, as stated by May’s Conservative Party, was to reduce net migration to the United Kingdom below 100,000 and keep out people who might become dependent on government services. And while the MIR has provoked intense criticism from human rights activists, opposition leaders, and families, the Conservatives have doubled down on it, proposing earlier this year in their party manifesto to further raise the threshold.
UNFRIENDLY TO FAMILIES
The consequences of the MIR for families have been far-reaching. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, an internal government watchdog agency, says that as many as 15,000 British children are growing up in so-called “Skype families,” where one parent is unable to live in the United Kingdom. The income threshold has separated children from parents, husbands from wives, and grandparents from their grandchildren.
For people like Muhado, reaching the £18,600 salary is difficult. She works in a beauty shop three days a week, but her child-care challenges make it virtually impossible to take on more hours. “I can’t work two jobs, I have kids, it’s not easy for me to earn that much,” she said. “I am stuck.”
According to figures from the U.K. tax office, roughly 37 percent of earners have an annual salary below the MIR benchmark. A 2015 report commissioned by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner said that a parent has to make “significantly more than the minimum wage” for an overseas partner to be allowed to join them. (In 2015, an adult employed 40 hours per week at minimum wage earned less than £14,000. Today, after the introduction of the National Living Wage in 2016, a worker over 25 years old earns £16,500 annually—still well below the MIR.)
The report said the income requirement makes the United Kingdom “among the most family-unfriendly of the developed countries.” “The income threshold would not be met by almost half of adult British citizens,” the report said, “including many in full-time work, particularly the young, the retired, women, ethnic minorities, and those living outside London and the South East where wages are lower.”
Muhado considers the MIR an unjust penalty singling out poorer people and those from outside Europe. “This system helps people with money, not people like me,” she said. “I have seen EU citizens and they don’t need to meet the £18,600 requirement, but we Africans have to.”
A FINANCIAL CAP ON LOVE, ACTUALLY
But any low-income earner who falls in love with someone beyond Europe’s borders could be affected. Liam McDonnell, a 28-year old comic and British citizen, has struggled to bring his Australian wife, Lauren, to the United Kingdom.
They met while Lauren was living in his hometown of Edinburgh on a short-term work visa. He was shocked to learn that the MIR meant she could not join him permanently in the United Kingdom. “I assumed, like most, if you marry someone British or otherwise, then you’re a couple and you can be together.”
The pair married in November 2016, and since then, they’ve spent just three weeks “in the same hemisphere,” McDonnell said. “We speak to each other every day, but that does not make up for the lost intimacy,” he said. “It puts an enormous amount of pressure on a relationship knowing there’s no end [of the separation] in sight. And we are a newly married couple—it’s like we got married and someone pressed pause.”
He says everyone he has talked to about the rule opposes it. “It’s embarrassing to tell people I did not earn enough, people are shocked it comes down to money,” he said, “and people are not surprised it was Theresa May who introduced this law in 2012.” Mc-Donnell calls it “a financial cap on who is allowed to be in love.”
Darren Smith, 42, also says the immigration laws unfairly target him because of his economic status. A part-time worker at a paint shop in Northampton, England, he has struggled with alcoholism and spent much of his life on welfare. But after meeting his American partner, Kristy, online, things had been looking up. “I didn’t get depressed, I didn’t want to drink—I have her now,” he said.
“IT’S SHAMING TO BE BRITISH RIGHT NOW.”
The two plan to wed in October, but Smith’s earnings fall short of the MIR. As a result, they may be forced to remain apart. “It’s heartbreaking, I cry most days,” he said. “We don’t operate well on our own, [but] when she’s here it’s like the family life I never had.”
And it’s not just the working class who are disproportionately hit, but younger people, too. Take Paul McMillan, a 25-year-old trainee doctor at Glasgow University. McMillan met his American partner, Megan Richter, in 2012 while working as a camp instructor in Iowa. The couple fell in love and decided in 2016 that Richter, who’d recently completed a degree in social work, would move from her home in Nebraska to Glasgow while McMillan finished his studies.
But McMillan does not earn enough money as a medical student to sponsor her. Instead, Richter is thinking of moving to Ireland on a one-year visa. McMillan intends to fly back and forth between Scotland and Ireland for visits. The experience has made him rethink his future in the United Kingdom. “It’s shaming to be British right now,” he said.
His case has been picked up by MIR opponents, who say the rule may lead to brain drain from Britain. Speaking in Parliament, McMillan’s local MP, Ronnie Cowan, noted that as a result of the government’s “increasingly hostile attitude towards immigrants,” his constituent intends to emigrate after completing his studies. “Scotland will lose not only his future medical expertise but the expertise of his partner, a qualified social worker,” Cowan said.
“ARBITRARY, ABSURD, AMATEURISH”
The MIR is one step in the United Kingdom’s lurch to the right on immigration. In 2010, the Conservative Party, under former Prime Minister David Cameron, was elected on a pledge to curb net migration to the “tens of thousands.” At least as long as the U.K. remained part of the European Union, that target applied only to non-EU residents because of the pact’s policy of free movement. To meet the goal, the government introduced a variety of measures to dissuade people from outside Europe to enter, or remain in, Britain.
Visa fees were raised, and tough penalties were introduced for the newly codified crimes of “illegally working” and “driving when unlawfully present in the U.K.” The measures were propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment that intensified after the 2008 financial crash wiped out savings and stable jobs. This dynamic coalesced with the U.K.’s Brexit vote, in June 2016.
But the target has been criticized by migration experts such as Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London. Writing in the left-leaning New Statesmen in April, Portes noted: “Essentially scribbled on the back of an envelope, with no serious analysis of either its feasibility or desirability, this target has distorted U.K. immigration policy since 2010. From either an economic or social point of view, it is almost impossible to justify.”
Leading up to elections this past June, Theresa May, who’d become prime minister following Brexit, continued to tout both the target and the MIR. In their party manifesto, the Conservatives pledged to raise the income threshold even higher, though they were vague about the size of that increase.
May’s former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have attacked her fealty to the 100,000 limit. Sir Vince Cable, leader of the party, said in July that she appeared obsessed with this “arbitrary” goal, adding that it was “absurd and amateurish.”
The government hasn’t come close to meeting the target since it was first proposed in 2009. Net migration dipped in the first few years of this decade, from 256,000 in 2010 to 177,000 in 2012. But it increased over the following three years, reaching 332,000 in 2015. Now, Brexit appears to be driving down migration once again. Figures released by the government in August recorded net migration in the 12-month period ending March 2017 at 246,000, with the departure of many EU citizens contributing to the drop.
Those figures also contained a revelation that, for years, the Home Office has been overstating the number of international students who overstayed their visas—undermining Conservative suggestions that a crackdown could expose tens of thousands of people holding expired documents. The opposition Labour Party seized upon the report to highlight the failure of “bogus net migration targets.” Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, described the policy as “a shambles,” adding: “Theresa May continues to insist on maintaining an arbitrary net migration target of under 100,000, which has never once been met.”
The opposition party has said it would scrap the MIR. But despite criticism over the migration target and the use of a financial threshold to achieve it, the Tories appear loathe to abandon the policy. Polls have consistently shown relatively strong support for tighter immigration controls, but in an Ipsos survey released in May, 68 percent of respondents said they didn’t think the Conservatives could meet their numerical target of 100,000.
In the absence of a political solution, families and activists have sought a legal route to ending the policy. In February, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled in a case filed by three people—two British citizens and one refugee from Lebanon—who had been unable to bring their spouses to live with them because of the income threshold. They charged that the MIR was incompatible with family protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The seven justices acknowledged that the rule “causes hardship to many thousands of couples, including some who are in no way to blame for the situation in which they find themselves,” and said that it failed to take full account of the rights of affected children. But the court ultimately backed the policy, saying it was “accepted in principle.”
The government has said it will carefully consider the court’s ruling, particularly in cases involving children, but it has taken no action to date. At the time of the ruling, a Home Office spokesperson added that the income threshold remained “central to building an immigration system that works in the national interest.”
While the MIR’s fate plays out in Parliament and the courtroom, those affected remain in limbo. Muhado maintains little hope of reuniting her family—she says she is unable to get a higher-paying job and spending more time at work is difficult because of her two young children.
This summer, after calling in favors from employers and doubling his hours, McDonnell was able to boost his earnings above the threshold and his wife’s visa has now been approved. The visa application was helped along by a paid-for priority service, a relatively new feature of the immigration system that fast-tracks the process for those who can afford the £500 fee. To critics, it is another example of how the system favors wealthier applicants.
Jumping the queue isn’t in Muhado’s plans—lawyers have advised her to not even bother applying for a partner visa for the time being. “I was told I would be refused because I don’t earn the amount required. The lawyers told me, ‘We can’t do anything for you.’”
Instead she and her husband have begun to investigate moving the family to Dubai. It’s not a welcome prospect: She fears that as a migrant worker, she would have fewer freedoms and would find it hard to acquire the legal rights for her family to remain. A return to Somalia is even more troubling.
Muhado, her husband, and her children will remain a “Skype family” for the foreseeable future. “It’s been going for five years,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to change.”