Families divided by war, and tough UK visa rules

Families divided by war, and tough UK visa rules
Feature: UK regulations requiring minimum incomes have kept families apart and spouses of British citizens in dangerous situations, writes Imogen Lambert.
5 min read
11 May, 2015
Sandra lived in Gaza with her husband after he was refused visas for the uk
Abdurahmen Absey is stuck in Sanaa, Yemen, as conflict engulfs the country and cannot travel to Birmingham, in the UK, to see his wife Khadija and two children.

Khadija is a British citizen, but that does not give Abdurahmen the right to stay here.

"I miss them more and more...I can't live without them, I keep in touch with them everyday......I am desperate to see my family again," Abdulrahmen says.  

The Absey family, like many others, are forced to be apart because of British family immigration rules, which state that a British citizen must earn £18,600 to sponsor a spouse to come to the UK. Khadija does not earn that much.

"Sometimes electricity cuts and my wife loses contact with me... she cries worrying," said Abdurahmen.

The couple have known each other since they were children. Khadija moved to the UK in 2003 with her family and became a British citizen. In 2009, she returned to Yemen to marry Abdurahmen and settle in her birth-country.  

"We used to be the happiest family in the world," Abdurahmen said.  

As Yemen fell into conflict, Khadija applied for a spouse settlement visa for her husband.  

"We were surprised about the immigration rules, especially the income requirement... which is very hard."  

The British consulate in Sanaa closed in 2009, and there was nowhere to certify an English language test. Forced to travel to Cairo to take the exam, Abdurahmen easily passed yet still sees little hope of reuniting with his family in the foreseeable future.  
     We used to be the happiest family in the world.
- Abdurahmen

"I don't know what I should do... especially with the current situation in my country.  We need basic services like water, electricity, security, petrol.... I am very frustrated right now because I am not able to do anything; they can't come to me because of the situation in Yemen, and I can't go to the UK because of the rules."

Abdurahmen's predicament is not unique, as there are numerous instances of family members of British citizens stuck in life-threatening situations due to immigration rules.

Don Flynn, director of the Migrants' Rights Network recalls how, after the outbreak of war in Syria, British citizens were evacuated by the foreign office with promises that Syrian family members would soon be granted visas to the UK.  

Yet there have been documented cases of Syrian family members being stuck under bombardments for years while their British families fight for reunification.  

The UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8 of which states that there should be an "inalienable right to family life". The UK family immigration rules, with the highest income requirement in Europe, resulting in families' separations would appear to completely contradict this.

The frequent justification from the home office is that the British family members may live in their relatives' home country. In many cases, this is simply impossible, and would appear to contradict the advice of the foreign office, who warn against all travel to Yemen, Syria, or, in Sandra's case, Gaza.  

Sandra Jadallah met her husband Ahmed from Gaza in 2012. They soon fell in love and married a year later in Cairo.  

After repeatedly being denied visitor visas for Ahmed, Sandra travelled to Gaza and the couple lived in the blockaded coastal strip for a year.  

Although Ahmed's family were against the marriage, the couple were content.

In February last year, Sandra's mother became extremely ill, and Sandra travelled back to the UK to be with her. While she was away, war broke out in Gaza.

"It was awful," she said. "You could hear bombing in the background while we were talking on Skype," Sandra said.

Although Sandra was prepared to make the sacrifice to live in Gaza for a year to be with her husband, there is now no way she can return to him - the Rafah crossing has been closed for months, and North Sinai has become increasingly dangerous.  

As a nurse who started working night shifts, Sandra should now meet the financial requirements.  
     The situation is impossible. Even if he does get a visa, how does he get out?
Sandra Jadallah

However, Ahmed does not have access to the required English exam as there are no facilities to take the test in Gaza, and he is unable to leave what Sandra describes as, the "open air prison".      

"The situation is impossible. Even if he does get a visa, how does he get out?"  

Other families are forced apart by unavoidable life circumstances.

Jane met her husband from Egypt five years ago. She is unable to leave the UK, as she has child from another marriage and shares custody with his father.  

Jane is self-employed but does not earn enough to meet the visa rules.

"I was previously proud to be British, but these rules allow only the wealthy to have a family of their choice. I have no words for that,"  Jane says.  

Under the rules, 47 percent of the British working population would be unable to sponsor family.

Fortunately for Jane, with the help of a supportive family, she is close to raising the £60,000 in savings that would exempt her from the income requirement. The couple are now waiting to apply for settlement after being apart for years.

A loophole in the rules is to travel to Europe, where if the British spouse works for six months, they can gain a European residency card which gives their spouse the same rights. The family can then return to the UK as de facto European citizens, and after five years gain residency.

However, for many couples who have commitments in the UK, including the ones interviewed here, this is not an option.  

For these couples, it is almost impossible to live together anywhere outside the UK, thus the family immigration rules would appear to violate their right to family life.  

"Family unification is a fundamental right, not a privilege," Flynn says.