Guest post by Emily Churchill. Emily successfully fought for her husband to be allowed to join her in the UK. She now fights for others through her work with I Love Migrants.
This afternoon I met a man who hasn’t seen his daughter for seven years. No longer the baby girl he used to hold, she is now a strapping eight year old who demands to know when her dad’s coming home, because she wants to play with him.
There is a long pause after Mohammed* tells me this, and I try to digest quite how horrible it must be to hear your daughter ask that and not have an answer.
Mohammed and his family are being kept apart because his wife does not yet speak enough English to qualify for a UK spouse visa. What’s more, his wife is forced to live apart from their young daughter while she studies English nearly 200km away from their home. Her accommodation, travel, English course and test fees cost money that Mohammed simply doesn’t have. The family are near breaking point.
Mohammed fled to England from his home in Darfur, Sudan in 2004, fearing for his life. He left behind his wife and daughter, who had been born just 14 months before. What followed were six years of what Mohammed modestly terms “things I never thought that I was going to go through”: his asylum claim repeatedly refused, he was separated from his family, unable to work and forced to live off Home Office food vouchers which left him unable even to use the bus.
However, Mohammed saw light at the end of the tunnel when, in January 2010, he was granted Indefinite Leave to Remain as a ‘legacy case’. This meant that his family did not have the automatic right to reunion which they would have had if he’d been granted refugee status. After six years of waiting, it felt like he’d been given a “magic key for a new life”. Now that he had won the right to live and work in the UK, Mohammed was sure his wife and daughter would finally be able to join him in England.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. In December 2010, Mohammed carefully gathered the reams of necessary documents and prepared to pay an astounding £1620 in (non-returnable) visa application fees for his wife and daughter to come to the UK. All this for his wife to be simply informed that if she didn’t ‘go away and get an English certificate’, her application would not be accepted.
In the Sudanese town of Medani, where Mohammed’s wife and daughter live, there are no English language colleges. The nearest English college is in Khartoum, nearly 200km from their home. Left with no other option, his wife now rents accommodation and attends college in Khartoum on weekdays, leaving her daughter with her grandmother in Medani. On top of college fees of £150 a month, Mohammed’s wife has to pay almost £5 a day to take the three buses each way to and from college, as renting any nearer her college in central Khartoum would be too expensive.
But the direct costs of the English test don’t stop there. Mohammed is also paying his wife’s rent in Khartoum and her weekly travel costs between Khartoum and Medani. When the time comes, the English test itself will also cost him around £129.
Inevitably, the stress is taking its toll on Mohammed.
“I am finding it difficult to concentrate at work because of my problems”, he tells me. “I don’t get enough sleep at night; sometimes I find myself just thinking about my family, my life, during work.”
Family torn apart
Before the pre-entry English test for spouse visas became law on 29 November 2010, JCWI warned that it would punish families who, for reasons of geography or financial capacity, would find it difficult to access English lessons. Six months later, this prediction is being mercilessly played out in the lives of Mohammed and his family. Not only has the English test requirement separated Mohammed from his wife and daughter, it has also separated his wife from their child, leaving the eight-year-old feeling ‘orphaned’.
“Her grandmother always tells me that [my daughter] cries, she says that everybody has got his parents except me”, says Mohammed.
“I would like to say to the people who created the English language requirement, how would you feel if you were kept away from your family for one week? Just think of how we feel when we are kept apart for more than seven years, away from our wives, kids and loved ones. We fled our countries seeking a safe refuge for ourselves and families. We want to feel safe and have our human rights respected.”
‘My family should learn English’
The ironic thing about all of this is that Mohammed agrees wholeheartedly that his family should learn English if they are to live here. But he believes that the best place to improve your English is here in England.
“When you come here the words, the expressions that you learn, you practice them in the street, you use them in your daily life,” he says, “But [in Sudan] you have to leave what you learnt in the class, because you are not going to practice it outside.”
Mohammed’s impressively fluent English is testimony to his theory. It is clear that Mohammed is not contesting that his wife and daughter should learn English, but rather the idea than his wife’s current level of English should be a reason to prolong the family’s painful separation.
“For me personally it is good that my family speaks the language of the country they live in. But how can they keep my family there when they’ve been away from me more than seven years, and say that unless you speak English you don’t have the right to go [to England]? I don’t understand…”
With these last three words Mohammed trails off, sounding genuinely bewildered. And having heard his story, I am also left finding the English test requirement, enforced by a government that claims to value family life, truly difficult to comprehend.
*Mohammed is not his real name.