This article, by Emily Churchill, was used in part in the Guardian today as part of the coverage around the Young Marriages Supreme Court judgment. We print it in full here, to highlight the effects of the misguided legislation we have just defeated in court.
“I’ve been counting down the days, and now I’ve got 39 until my flight. It was over 100 when I started counting.”
Charlotte, an 18-year-old newlywed from Hutton, Essex, should be enjoying the first year of young married life. But because of UK immigration rules, the young supermarket worker may have to wait another three years before she can actually live with her husband. Hafizur Rahman, or ‘Billy’ as he’s more commonly known, cannot get a UK visa because his wife is not yet 21. Which has left British citizen Charlotte desperately counting down the days until she can fly out to see him again.
Born Charlotte Sarchet, the black-haired teenager grew up with three younger siblings in Hutton, Essex. She left school with 10 good GCSEs and began a course in Childcare, but later decided the field wasn’t for her.
It was while working at a restaurant in Mountnessing in March 2010, that love blossomed between Charlotte and co-worker Billy. Billy, 26, came to Britain in 2008 to complete his studies in Business. The pair were soon inseparable and found a flat together near Brentwood Station, receiving frequent visits from Charlotte’s parents and young brothers, who liked playing Xbox with Billy.
However, the young couple had barely been together a year when disaster struck.
Detained and deported
When her boyfriend stopped replying to her text messages one chilly day in March, Charlotte knew something was wrong. She rushed home to find the flat turned upside down and a police search warrant on the table – Billy had been arrested for overstaying his student visa, and was detained for two months before being deported to Bangladesh.
“I called my mum and I was crying, I was hysterical, and she drove me to the police station” says Charlotte, who was given an emotional five minutes with her husband-to-be before he was detained in Harmondsworth immigration removal centre.
Despite working five to six days at Sainsbury’s supermarket, Charlotte made the three-hour train journey to visit her man in Harmondsworth at least three times a week. Distressed by his continued detention in ‘prison -like’ conditions, it was Charlotte who eventually bought her Billy his plane tickets back to Dhaka, Bangladesh. But on one condition – she was going with him.
Married in Bangladesh
Defying deportation policy, Charlotte insisted the pilot let the couple sit together on the flight back to Bangladesh.
“I was a bit scared because I was going somewhere I didn’t know, I’d never been there before,” she said.
But, swallowing her nerves, the Essex teenager moved in with her boyfriend’s family in Dhaka and, within four days, she was
donning a red and black sari at their wedding.
“At Christmas we already knew we were gonna get married but we just pushed it forward,” recalls Charlotte, who says the
support of both their families has made the couple’s drama-filled year much easier to cope with.
However, the young bride was soon finding the blistering Dhaka heat too much to bear.
“It was the weather and the food. I wasn’t eating out there. When I was eating I was just being sick. Billy said to me you have to go back, you can’t stay here like this. But I didn’t want to go back.”
But it soon became clear that returning to England was the only realistic option for Charlotte, and the couple were forced
to say a heart-wrenching farewell.
“Saying goodbye was horrible, I hated going in the airport. We didn’t have a clue when we’d see each other again. I told him
I’d come back.”
Wait till you’re 21
Under Home Office rules, British citizens under the age of 21 cannot bring their spouses to live with them in the UK. The
Home Office claims that this rule helps to protect young women from being forced into marriages unwillingly.
Habib Rahman, Chief Exec of JCWI said “The government claims this law is aimed at stopping force marriages. No one who
sees the story and the suffering of Charlotte and Billy can think for a second that their marriage was forced. This is a nasty and unwarranted infringement on the rights of a British woman and her husband, and this unfair and inhumane law should be scrapped. There are other laws that can tackle the terrible evil of forced marriages, which need to be used, but this just causes unnecessary suffering.”
But for Charlotte and Billy, the rule means they now face a gruelling three-year wait until they can be reunited in England. The pair are so devastated at this prospect that Charlotte is considering leaving her family, friends and job in Essex and moving
to Ireland, where Billy may be able to get residency as the spouse of an EU citizen.
“It’s horrible. It’s not the same,” says the 18-year-old of life without her husband.
“I can’t stop texting him. I stay up really late to talk to him and get up really early, because of the time difference. I talk to him 24 hours a day, I don’t put the phone down. My dad’s like, ‘is that stuck to your hand?!’”
Determined to be together
But the couple’s fighting spirit remains undampened by their relationship’s tragic turn. Working all the hours she can, Charlotte is saving furiously to go and visit her husband again, as well as sending money to support Billy, who is struggling to find work back in Dhaka. The British teenager has also sent written pleas to the Home Office, the PM and the Queen, and has even started an online petition entitled ‘Lower the Marriage Visa Age – From 21 Back to 18’.
And if, as the couple are desperately hoping, the under-21 rule is changed, they will have to stump up another £810 just to apply for Billy’s UK visa.
“You can’t even explain how frustrated I am at the [21 age restriction]. How can they judge on an age, you might be 25 and immature, or 18 and act 30” said Charlotte.
“[People entering forced marriages] will just get married to someone who’s 22, so it’s not stopping anything, is it?
“I’ve got hundreds of pictures, I can prove [our relationship is real], I can get the money, we’ve got the English, we’ve got everything. It’s just the age that’s stopping us.”
Old enough to love
Charlotte shrugs off the accusation that her husband is only with her to get residency in Britain.
“If that was the case, then he would have married someone who was over 21,” she says simply. “I know he loves me.
“We don’t want benefits, he doesn’t want a British passport. We just want to be together.”
And what of the suggestion, made by Immigration Minister Damien Green, that “marriage is not something that should be taken lightly, especially when it involves moving to another country. In such circumstances it is reasonable to ask both parties to wait until they are 21”?
“It’s three years!” laughs Charlotte. “Seriously, three years?! It’s been ten weeks and I’ve had enough already. I can’t imagine other people waiting three years to be with their partner.”