"I have never welcomed the weakening of family ties by politics or pressure" - Nelson Mandela.
"He who travels for love finds a thousand miles no longer than one" - Japanese proverb.
"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." - Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change". -
David Cameron.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Skype Families - Making Children's Voices Heard

Below is a guest post by Amanda Beattie, commenting on the impact of UK's family immigration rules on children.  

Amanda is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University and Co-Editor at ISA Compendium, Ethics Section.
Skype Families[1]:
Making Childrens Voices Heard

It appears that there is an emerging hierarchy in the discussions of childrens rights in the UK.  While family law, and its associated institutions, puts the wellbeing of the child at the heart of its negotiations, migration legislation does not.  Children in the UK whose families are subject to immigration controls, owing to their mixed citizenship heritage, lack a voice. 

In September 2015 the Childrens Commissioner in the United Kingdom released Skype Families.  This document reflects on the 160 page report, Family Friendly?[2] it commissioned looking into the wellbeing of UK children affected by the 2012 amendments to Family Immigration rules.   The document provided clear evidence of how the separation of children from at least one parent is detrimental to their wellbeing.

The report indicates that since 2012 an estimated 15,000 children have been separated from their parents because they do not meet the income requirements of family migration requirements.  This separation, they show, is in direct contravention to the duty of care that the state owes to its child citizens.  States are charged with protecting children in Article Three of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child.  Section one clearly states that:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interest of the child shall be primary consideration.[3] 

The evidence within the report suggest, according to John Vine (the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration) that since the new income requirements came into effect in 2013, only one decision maker in approximately 60 cases, heeded this call. 

This, I believe, is deeply troubling; but, what is more troubling, is that there is, within the UK judiciary, an acknowledged need to keep children with their parents.  I point to the recently decided case of a child, both of whose parents live within the UK, but whose mother wanted to move to Hong Kong with her son.  This would remove him from daily contact with his father.  The Judge, Mr. Justice Wood, denies the mother permission to leave, after her legal representation suggested the use of modern technologies would supplant daily contact between the father and son.  Justice Wood suggests;

The disadvantages of Skype - as any user will know - are all too often the lack of clarity of image, the sound delay even if short, and, as counsel colourfully notes in her closing submissions, you cant hug Skype. 

He continues:

This is a case where a father, despite obstacles, has built up a very good and profound attachment to his son.  The mothers proposals to relocate - even if her proposals for visits, telephone calls and Skype calls are carried out - in practice do not make up for these losses.[4] 

Within this decision there is evidence of the childs best interest being taken into account.  Justice Wood suggests, in his decision, that both the child and the father would suffer is they were not in the same geographic location. 

What I wonder is why in this case?  If it is so clear that such technologies do not suffice to maintain family relations long distance, why do we force other separated families to rely on such technologies to build family bonds, especially when they are not always readily available. 

In another publication, Love Letters to the Home Office, the inability of Skype to enhance family relations is rendered poignantly and despairingly.   One father recounts what it is to live in the UK while his wife and two children live in Peru.

We wanted to bring our children up experiencing both of our cultures, but I had no choice but to leave Peru in July 2013 because of financial difficulties. 

I talk to Vanessa daily, but Skype is a luxury only available in the city centre, which means I rarely see my children.  Sometimes, when I do, Olenka is indifferent, not wanting to talk.  Other times, shes excited, saying Hola, Papi, vamos al parquet? those are the times that fill my heart with joy. 

We have cried often, in despair for our future.  We have cried over not sharing those magical moments that will never return.  Moments gone forever.  Moments like my childrens first days at school.[5] 

The overwhelmingly clear differences in these two cases seems to be geographical and institutional.  The Judge decided to keep a child in the UK where his two parents both already reside, even though the mother grew up in Hong Kong.  This decision, most notably, was made in family court.  For families who live across international boundaries they must rely on immigration tribunals to make their case.  Within these institutional channels, the wellbeing of the child seems to play an insignificant role, even though the harm of separation is (potentially) the same. 

As I reflect on these two experiences I am reminded of the writings of Onora ONeill.[6]  She has published on the idea of children and rights and wonders if rights are the best way to protect children.  She reminds us that rights, for those who lack a voice, must be interpreted by those who have one.  Childrens rights are caught up in hierarchies of power that may, from time to time, forget who they ought to help.   

The 2012 family migration amendments were supposedly brought in to lessen the number of migrant families who rely on welfare and social support.   As Skype Families makes clear, this has not been its result.  The voice of the child, within the migrant struggles in the UK, is one that is over-looked while the voice of the child is contradictorily heard in family courts.   

We must ensure that until such a time that the family migration rules, and in particular the income requirement, are rescinded the voice of the children in mixed citizenship families is heard loud and clear and that there are no hierarchies emerging within the protection of a childs best interest. 

[4] Re R (A Child: Relocation) [2015] EWHC 456 (Fam)
[5] Love Letters to the Home Office.  (2014)  Love letters to the home office, Consilience Media. 
[6] O'Neill, O. (1988). Children's rights and children's lives. Ethics, 445-463.

Alexis & Miad - United Family of the Week

“I had to give up my studies to earn £18,600 even though completing the course would have meant a better future for my family.”

Alexis is a British citizen from Scotland.  She met Miad in 2005 through shared interests online.  They became good friends, with the relationship two years later moving to that of a romantic nature.

Miad is from Iran.  As they were desperate to meet in August 2008, one year after having an online relationship, Alexis travelled 4000 miles to meet the man she had fallen in love with.  Miad as a university student, could not obtain a passport because the Iranian government do not process passports for their male citizens until National Service has been completed. 

So Alexis travelled with her two children, (who at the time were 5 and 7) to Iran for a month.  They all loved every second of it – and none of them wanted to return to the UK.  . Whilst in Iran, Alexis and Miad got engaged.

By June 2009, when Alexis returned to Iran for three weeks, Miad had left university and was working, having also been called up for military service.  They planned on getting married during Alexis’s visit although the Iranian authorities did not make it easy. 

She was told that after marriage, she would automatically become an Iranian citizen - meaning that she would effectively forfeit her British citizenship as Iran doesn't recognise dual nationality. Alexis didn't like this idea, so instead the couple opted for a “temporary” marriage lasting fifty years.

This was an interim solution to also get round the Iranian law which prevents its citizens from having a boyfriend/girlfriend.  So the couple went through an Islamic ceremony, paid fees and exchanged rings.  Alexis also had to convert to become a Muslim.

The temporary marriage was another step of commitment for the couple, formalising their relationship.  Alexis returned home and in November 2010, returned to Iran with the kids this time, again for a month.  Miad's 20 month service was due to end in January 2011 and then, the family could be together.

They planned for Miad to join Alexis and the kids in the UK. Uprooting the kids to move to Iran was not an option – they had to have access to their birth father. 

At the time, Alexis was studying full time. For Miad to join her in the UK on a spouse visa, she would need to leave college but didn’t relish giving up her studies.  So after some discussion, they decided the best step would be for Miad to pursue his studies in the UK.

It took a while to collect the required funds for the visa and college fees - in fact they needed nearly £4000 in fees, and another £7200 in the bank for 28 days to show that he could support himself financially.  With effort, they got everything he needed together, applying at the British embassy in Turkey (as there is none in Iran).

In June 2012, Miad travelled from Iran to Turkey and applied for his student visa, with Alexis joining him there for support.  A couple of weeks later, they received a response from the Home Office.  The application was refused!  The bank in Iran that Miad had deposited his money with, was suddenly blacklisted.  Despite the fact that just a month earlier they had been informed that the UK government recognised and accepted the bank he had used.

A sudden rule change, which was not made public, caught this couple off guard.

Miad complained to the visa consultant who had been helping him (provided by the UK college). The consultant apologised profusely, offering to refund the visa fee.  The visa adviser said Miad could make another application - instead of going back to Iran, he could simple send the money directly to the college. Miad asked if this was allowed. The consultant told him that yes, this was allowed. So listening to his 'expert' advice, he re-applied. And, surprise surprise, he was refused again.  Miad was hopping mad! Again, he was given an apology and a feeble excuse that it had been fine for other students.  This visa consultant again refunded his visa fee - but by this time Miad was again out of pocket from expenses whilst living in Turkey!

Why was Miad using this useless man's services? Because he had been told by the college that, if Miad didn't use him and his application was refused, he wouldn't get his college fees refunded!

Miad went back to Iran in August. He had to get the money back from the college which he put in an approved bank and waited until he could go for a second time, to Turkey - in September - and apply for a third time.

Thankfully the application was successful this time.
In the meantime, the family migration rules had changed.  Miad arrived in the UK in October 2012 and started college straight away.  His student visa expires in August 2013.

In January Alexis had to give up college.  Had she been able to complete her course, she could have aimed for a better job, better career and better future - for all four of them.  However, because of the rules, the onus only fell on Alexis to find a job paying over £18,600. 

Alexis has been on medication for anxiety and depression with the threat of state-enforced separation hanging over them.

Update: Alexis and Miad are living happily together in the UK finally, and are now proud parents to a gorgeous baby boy.  They however remain involved in the campaign for fair family immigration rules.