Migrant communities weren’t expecting the kick in the teeth they have got from the recent High Court ruling on the issue of family reunion rights. With more plans to restrict these further down the line, expect things to get a whole lot worse.
The unwelcome irony of last week’s announcement in the High Court of the ruling in the case of Chapti & Ors is that it came out just two days before the world is supposed to celebrate International Migrants Day (IMD). This is a time when we are expected to acknowledge what the experience of being a migrant means in today’s world, and how better recognition of human rights would ease passage into society’s mainstream. But this ruling means that a crucial element in achieving this goal has just got a lot harder.
The government pitched its argument to the High Court that the imposition of a pre-entry English language test for migrants was reasonable towards the goal of integration. Yet the evidence submitted by lawyers for the applicant showed that the vast majority of family members applying for permanent settlement after two years residence in the UK are able to pass the English language test showing that they have met the standard level of conversation. For those interested in the numbers, in 2009 60,480 dependents were successful in passing the test that allowed them settlement in 2009, with only 470 (or less than 1%) failing.
So, for the group of migrants the government has targeted as needing to pass the English language test, the evidence couldn’t be clearer – once they are in the UK, we seem to have an excellent record in getting people up to the level the authorities think is necessary for them to integrate.
Of course we know that not all migrant family members can be made subject to an English language test as a condition for entry into the UK. The family members of nationals of European Economic Area countries, plus Switzerland, are exempt from this requirement because of the rights which extend to them under the terms of the European Union treaties. Similarly, some countries like the United States and Canada have been declared English-speaking – their citizens are therefore not required to be tested, even though they might contain large minorities who do not normally communicate in that language.
Family members who are required to be tested have to deal with the additional expense of language classes and test fees. As another blog thread on this website makes clear with its discussion of the problems people encounter in trying to identify approved English classes and test centres in their country, this immigration rule generates very great hardships for people who, if they were only given the go-ahead to join their sponsors over here, would quickly learn the language and pass the tests they have to sit after two years anyway.
What happens to people of migrant background when their right to family life is worked over by the bureaucratic obstacles and general rigmarole which the language tests entail? The index of migrant integration policies developed by the MIPEX project gives us the best idea of how important access to family life is for communities which are working towards their integration. Its view is that increasing the obstacles to family reunification in the country in which the sponsor is settled produces poorer, rather than better, integration outcomes. Delaying family reunion produces outcomes which undermine the strong features of the UK system – namely the level of protection provided against discrimination – and creates a situation which is only ‘halfway favourable’ to integration.
The European Network of Migrant Women (ENoMW) published a recently published a report on family reunion legislation in Europe, asking the question as to whether it is discriminatory for migrant women. It found evidence that pre-entry tests increased difficulties for people from low-income households who are already facing multiple difficulties in moving from the unequal margins to the mainstream of society. Other researchers have noted the higher costs imposed on migrants who are obliged, because of a failure to obtain visas for their dependents, to maintain two households – one for themselves in the country of settlement, and another for their families in the country of origin. Despite the evidence that prolonged family separation creates more difficulties for migrants attempting to integrate, the government seems intent on pursuing its current course with spurious arguments about their motivation in achieving better integration.
So why is the coalition government so intent on carrying on down this path? It is likely to be driven by a desire to be seen as acting decisively in stemming what it sees as the permanently rising inflow of migrants which became a feature of the years of the New Labour government. The absolute reduction in migrant numbers as a result of these tests are likely to be fairly small. However, in today’s toxic climate for immigration policy, even the slightest evidence of a drop in levels is amplified into the hard-line message that the authorities are finally getting tough on the issue.
In the months ahead we have the prospect of further squeezes on family reunification, as proposals to increase the earnings requirement for sponsors will rise to a point somewhere between £18,000 to £25,000 per annum. We have to be concerned that something potentially very dangerous will arise as an outcome from these measures.
What we might see in the future is a growing number of the poorest people in the most pressured circumstances, having the additional burden of maintaining two households without the benefit of the resources that come from collective family life. For this group of migrants, social mobility has come, if it has come at all, from the relative success of children in education and the improved life chances they have had and have been able to share with their parents.
Restrictions on family reunification which most heavily affect financially constrained households will, for many, kill off the hopes of improvement which currently encourage people to commit themselves to integration. There is a reason why family life is such a fundamental human right, and that has little to do with the simple generosity and kind-heartedness of those who wield power in society. It is because family life strengthens resilience to hardship and increases people’s capacity to support the next generation. In acting against this principle and weakening the opportunity for family life for some migrants, we should expect to see worse integration outcomes, not better.