Family migration policies in the UK: What can academics contribute?

Vanessa Hughes

Last week Mark Harper laid yet another statement of changes in immigration rules before Parliament (for a round-up on recent changes look at this blog by the Migrants’ Rights Network). Although introducing most of the changes as minor, they indicate some interesting developments in relation to the family migration rules which, among other things, introduced a minimum income threshold for individuals to bring their family members to the UK in July 2012.

Photo by Phil Munson, COMPAS Photo Competition entry 2009

For the last four months I have supplemented my academic work at COMPAS with an internship at the charity Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN), where I have worked on a report on the impacts of these rules and been marginally involved with the APPG Migration’s inquiry into them. A huge number of people submitted evidence to the call for written evidence – demonstrating the wide-ranging affect they are having – sharing their stories and how the rules have disrupted their lives. The written evidence gathering stage was followed by two oral evidence sessions held in Parliament which interrogated the impacts of the higher minimum income requirement for sponsorship of spouses/partners and dependants, and the new rules affecting sponsorship of adult elderly dependants to come to the UK.

Not just the usual suspects affected
When the rules were introduced the Migration Observatory stated early on that women, young people and non-Londoners would be most affected by the changes. This has been steadily confirmed by the APPG Migration inquiry as well as general responses MRN have received from individuals. In addition, these rules are affecting a wider range of people than the usual suspects targeted by immigration policies. In a presentation given by Tim Barnden of Wesley Gryk Solicitors, it was clear that his clients now also included many wealthy and highly-skilled migrants and British citizens who are unable to exercise their right to family life in the UK. The kind of problems that his clients were experiencing in meeting the family migration rules, the income threshold in particular, illustrated the rules’ lack of common sense, flexibility and impracticality to fit with modern lives. During the oral evidence sessions Barry O’Leary, also a solicitor, similarly emphasised that it is not just the income threshold that prevents families from living together in the UK but the many rules on how this threshold has to be met.

Changes to immigration rules made worse by cuts to legal aid
Even though the complexities of the rules will keep families who hitherto have had little contact with or knowledge of immigration policies separated for extended periods, in most circumstances they will eventually be able to meet the rules. These issues are starting to be addressed in the recent changes, where cash savings can now also be held as investment funds or where an academic stipend or maintenance grant may be counted as income. On the other hand those who simply do not earn the necessary annual income – that’s 47% of all British citizens, 61% of women and 58% of people aged between 20 and 30 – are unlikely to change their situation or circumstances so that they will eventually meet the family migration rules. This situation is exacerbated by the cuts to legal aid which will come into effect in April this year, making access to judicial representation for family migration cases a privilege of those who can afford to pay legal fees.

Together the changes to the family migration rules and those to legal aid are reinforcing the message from Government that certain rights and ways of life – namely the right to family and private life and to migrate – are reserved to those who can afford it and excludes the poor. This applies to British citizens, settled people and migrants alike.

Going beyond the academic
Personally, the experience of working outside of the academic institution and seeing the extent and severity that policy changes can have on people has highlighted to me the importance of our work. Seeing the connection between my work as a researcher and the realities behind it, made me realise that that its reaches can be useful beyond academic institutions and conversations. Understanding how immigration policies operate, what effects they have on people, how they interact with other policies and to provide evidence to this extent seems to me a valuable contribution to make. This is especially pertinent when the evidence used by Government to justify their own policies seems partial and emphasises the the economic argument over their social and human rights obligations.