British students struggle to meet the financial threshold needed to bring their overseas partners to the UK
Imagine being recently married, but forced to live separately from your partner. For many married students, this is a reality.
In July 2012, the government increased the salary requirement for a British person bringing a non-EU spouse into the UK to £18,600. If the couple have children, the amount rises to £22,400, with an extra £2,400 for every child thereafter.
The income requirement does not take the non-EU partner’s income into consideration, only that of the British partner. Nor are regional differences in pay considered, so someone in London is much more likely to be able to meet the requirement than someone from other parts of the UK where the average salary is lower.
Around 47% of the working population would not be able to meet the requirement, according to the charity BritCits, a human rights organisation campaigning on behalf of families with immigration problems.
Students, who tend to have poorly paid part-time jobs they can combine with their studies, have been particularly badly affected by the new rules.
BritCits calls the law “an attack on British citizens” and says it “violates the sanctity of marriage“. A High Court ruling in July 2013 found the rules to be “onerous and unjustified”, but the Home Office is appealing that finding.
BritCits spokesman Steven Green says: “Our work has highlighted the devastating impact of the rules on British citizens and their overseas families.
“This is particularly marked in the way the rules affect students: young people, making their way in the world, forming relationships and families while embarking on their careers, often struggle to meet the very strict requirements.”
So what is it like to be a student affected by these laws?
“I have been depressed, having panic attacks and moments of complete and utter despair”
Nicola McCausland, pictured above, a 26-year-old final-year politics and Spanish student at Queen’s University Belfast, has decided to give up her dream of doing a master’s in hispanic studies, because she is fed up of being separated from her husband.
Gustavo Penagos Rottmann, who is 25 and a chef, cannot get a visa to stay in the UK – even though he has had several job offers here.
The couple have been together for seven years and can’t face the prospect of being apart. She would not be able to earn £18,600 while pursuing her postgraduate degree. So, despite receiving an offer of full funding from her university, she has made the difficult decision to move to Guatemala to be with her husband.
She says: “I have been depressed, having panic attacks and moments of complete and utter despair.
“I have trouble sleeping, and concentrating at work and in university. I feel constantly torn between my family at home and my married life with the man I love.
“I am angry at the UK government for betraying law-abiding citizens in this way and, were the new family immigration laws to be scrapped tomorrow, I would not for a moment consider coming back to the UK to settle and pay taxes to its draconian government.”
“I walk through the doors of hell knowing I won’t see him for however long”
Yesmina Jallouli, 19 and a first-year international business student at Manchester Metropolitan University, has been watching her friends go on nights out while she sits at home in her student halls with just £2.07 to her name.
She has had to save all her money for travel tickets to see her Tunisian husband, Ahmed Ben Dhaou, 27, who is stuck in Tunisia due to the salary requirement.
She says: “How can students make £18,600 a year? Even when we do work we can’t possibly make that.”
The couple, who met when Jallouli was taking a gap year in Tunisia, married in December last year. But, separated from her husband, she has had to save money for visits to see him and has missed out on the social aspects of student life.
“I had no social life, saving to go to Tunisia, saving for the wedding, sacrificing everything to see him, because I love him,” she says. “I lived off hardly any food, not even going out – just sitting in my box in student halls. I hardly visited home because I couldn’t afford to.”
The enforced separation has taken its toll on Jallouli’s education and mental health, and her attendance in lectures and seminars has dropped. Moving to Tunisia is not an option because she needs to complete her studies here.
“It got to the point where one of my lecturers was concerned about me,” she says.
“I could only handle three weeks here and I had to book to go to Tunisia to go and see Ahmed. I cry when I see him at the airport, cry in his arms thinking about leaving, and cry at our last cuddle at the airport before I walk through the doors of hell knowing I won’t see him for however long.”
“There are times when you just want to go down to the Home Office to shout and scream at them”
Stewart Dods, 29, a final-year biochemical engineering PhD student at University College London (UCL), has had to deal with both his father dying and a separation from his Chinese wife.
Dods’s yearly stipend for his PhD is only £15,000, which is £3,600 short of the government’s requirement to bring his 32-year-old wife Yajun Zhao into the UK.
Dods met the tour organiser from Beijing through a friend when he was travelling in India in 2007. He thinks his skills would be well received by the Chinese and is considering finding work there.
He says: “You see David Willetts out there going on about entrepreneurism and innovation and how we need to keep scientists in the country, and you sort of go: ‘You don’t seem to want me because you won’t let me have a family here’. You get a really mixed message.”
In March, Dods’s father died of cancer. Zhao was able to secure a visitor’s visa only at the last minute to see her father-in-law as he lay dying in hospital.
“There are times when you just want to forget the PhD and go back to China just so we can be together,” Dods says. “And there are times when you just want to go down to the Home Office to shout and scream at them because you don’t know why they’re picking you out.
“My father and mother both worked and paid taxes. They have both felt extremely let down – it’s completely terrible.”