11:27, December 18 65 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-18 11:27:04
Home Office hostility nearly split me from my husband. Others have been less lucky

On 28 November 2017, I burst into tears in the middle of a coffee shop after I learned that my spouse visa had been rejected by the Home Office. My lawyer had warned me that this would be the most likely outcome but it still felt like a punch in the stomach. I was being rejected by the country where I had spent the past seven years, although I was happily married to one of its citizens.

I first arrived in the UK in 2010, aged 16 and on a child student visa, hoping to start a new life. My old life in Chechnya had broken into pieces the day my mother, a human rights activist, was kidnapped outside our house and murdered. With the support of my mum’s friends and colleagues, I moved to the UK, as she had wanted me to. In the following years I finished school, graduated from the London School of Economics and married the love of my life.

I was 22, he was 24, Brexit had just happened, my visa was running out, so tying the knot seemed like the most sensible (and romantic) option. But we learned soon enough that love and human rights concerns were not enough for the Home Office to grant a visa. How naive we were.

In 2012 the then home secretary, Theresa May, devised a number of policies in a bid to lower net migration. With the dexterity of a drunk barber, she chopped whatever ends she could find, wreaking havoc upon thousands of families. Under the new rules, the minimum income required to sponsor a spouse from outside the European Economic Area was raised to £18,600, higher if the spouse had a child. The income of a foreign spouse does not count towards this, even if they have a better-paid job. Roughly 40% of the population don’t meet the threshold – meaning that the ability to marry and live with who you love in the UK has become a privilege, not a right.

Visa and citizenship fees have steadily risen by 20-25% a year, driving many applicants into debt. Those fees include an obligatory £2,000 NHS surcharge on top of the income tax that all employed immigrants must also pay.

Our lawyer suggested that we should apply for a spouse visa via the human rights route. My three-kilo stack of visa documents included letters of support from NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders, saying it would be unsafe for me to return to Chechnya. My situation was complicated by the fact that half of my Chechen family disowned me for marrying a foreigner. We also didn’t meet the financial requirements, as my husband was completing his MA at the time, but we tried to find our way around it.

There had been a supreme court ruling that upheld the minimum income requirement but condemned the Home Office for endangering the welfare of children; it stated that third-party support should be considered when evaluating an applicant’s financial circumstances.

My father-in-law was happy to be a third-party sponsor. He drew up a legally binding contract, promising to pay the minimum monthly income requirement. He even had himself audited and his house valued to prove that he could afford to continue the payments.

In an attempt to meet the required income, my husband got a part-time job as a salesman for a tech company while doing his studies; I was serving tables at an Italian restaurant (I could only legally work for 20 hours a week). For one and a half years, my life was constrained by the fact that my only form of ID, my Russian passport, was at the Home Office – I couldn’t leave the country, register at a hotel or even buy a pair of scissors.

Eventually the Home Office claimed I hadn’t provided sufficient proof that I spoke a good level of English, seemingly forgetting I had finished school and graduated from university. It followed up with a few terse sentences, noting I had failed the financial requirements and that it wouldn’t consider third-party support – without any explanation of that decision.

The Home Office saw no reason why my husband and I couldn’t settle in Russia – despite human rights organisations arguing that our lives might be at risk. That the Home Office appears to think it’s OK to tell citizens they should live somewhere else if they want to be with the one they love is a scandal in its own right.

We appealed, our lawyer explaining that when similar cases go to appeal they are likely be overturned. Yet at £4,000 plus legal fees and no guarantee of success, this filters out many applicants by default. My husband got a job meeting the minimum requirements straight after graduation – but it would take six months before it would count – so we played the system: every request for information, every submission, drawn out to the last possible moment, hoping that the six months would pass before a tribunal date arrived. We made it, and finally after two years of uncertainty and stress, I received my two-and-a-half-year spousal visa.

Despite the inconvenience and constant stress, I always remind myself how lucky I was to be able to stay by my husband’s side and rely on the kindness and generosity of my in-laws. When I was searching through immigration forums I came across devastating stories of “Skype families”, children separated from their parents, husbands from their wives because of these rules. We were lucky we could afford a lawyer who knew how to navigate Home Office bureaucracy, which feels like it is designed to trip you up.

Battling the Home Office made me think that it’s occupied not by individuals with feelings and emotions but by a primitive AI without empathy or discretion. But hostile environment policies were designed by people. They are calculated to keep immigration at bay, no matter the cost to people’s lives. The Windrush scandal is a case in point.

Immigrants do far more for the UK than the UK does for them. They contribute their skills and invest in the economy, pay taxes and generally make this country a more interesting to live in. It is up to all of us, no matter our citizenship status, to stand in solidarity with migrants and resist whatever the next five years of Tory government brings.

Lana Estemirova is a graduate in international relations from the London School of Economics

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