Shelly K* always wanted to start a family, but as an immigrant Woman of Colour in the UK, the Home Office’s hostile environment made this impossible
Content warning: this piece contains mention of suicidal thoughts, miscarriage, and abortion. Click here to go back to the homepage
The trick to prohibiting something without explicitly doing so is to make doing that thing as difficult as possible.
Here in the UK, there is no law that prohibits anyone — citizen or immigrant — from having a baby, because that would be a violation of human rights. But the government have made it such that for immigrants without a visa, having children is simply not a possibility.
The Home Office inspired my decision to have an abortion, which turned into a miscarriage because of the extreme stress I went through. I’m not alone — many other immigrants have faced the impossible circumstances created by the government and been left with no other option but to terminate their pregnancy.
The government’s hostile environment is preventing many of us from starting the families we’ve always wanted to.
Priced out of having children
As a Muslim, disabled, immigrant Woman of Color, it is clear to me how the rising costs of visas have bankrupted low-waged and working class people who dared to fall in love with someone from a different country. For those who can’t afford those fees, having children — or even simply being together with their partner — isn’t an option.
The cost of applying for child citizenship is £1,012, despite it costing the Home Office just £372 to process, as pointed out by Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy on Twitter. “Children in families who can’t afford the fee are left facing barriers to healthcare, employment, university, renting, and personal banking,” she wrote. Who wants or imagines this sort of life for their child?
Class differences are deepening, and for immigrants, starting a family is only for the wealthy among us
For a spouse visa in the UK, some may pay up to £10k in order to get Indefinite Leave to Remain — compared with the Netherlands’ EUR 384 and Sweden’s SEK 2,000 (£168). Germany, France, and Ireland do not charge a fee.
When the costs of spouse or child visas are so high, it suggests that the Home Office doesn’t have a problem with immigration per se — but that they take issue with “poor people”. To even so much apply for a partner visa, the government requires that the British settled partner must be earning more than £18,600 annually before tax. About 41% of the UK’s population earns less than that amount. Certain groups, including disabled people and sexual, ethic, and religious minorities, are less likely to meet the threshold.
In the meantime, a wealthy person who has at least £2 million available to spend (the word used on the government website is “invest”) in the UK can pay £1,623 for a Tier 1 Investor visa that lasts for 40 months, and can expect a decision within three weeks.
If a couple doesn’t have children — for whatever reason — their relationship is judged as a “normal” emotional tie; nothing serious. Yet having children is just not a possibility
Meanwhile, others are scraping together funds for visas, only to get rejected for baseless and often immoral reasons. Class differences are deepening, and for immigrants, starting a family is only for the wealthy among us.
A cruel catch-22
My relationship with my partner crossed the eight-year mark when I filed my third visa application. One of the reasons for refusal was that our relationship does not go “beyond normal emotional ties”. When discussing this ridiculous claim with my lawyer, I was told that since we do not have children, our application would not have had the same weight.
This is a perfect catch-22, isn’t it? If a couple doesn’t have children — for whatever reason — their relationship is judged as a “normal” emotional tie; nothing serious. Yet having children is just not a possibility.
Paige Ballmi, who is currently pregnant, is one of the admins of a Facebook group Reunite Families, that is run entirely by volunteers. The group provides a safe space and resources to couples going through the hostile environment created by the Home Office.
“Starting a family at whatever stage in your life, whether planned or a surprise, shouldn’t come with plans and preparations around what a government department would want or expect our relationship to look like”
Paige and her then fiancée — who is European and now her husband — were wrongly refused a partner visa in 2017, creating stresses that led to her attempting suicide at one point. Had they been successful, they would have now completed almost the full 5-year period of living in the UK required to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. Perhaps they would have been in a better position to have a child than Paige currently is in now.
The Home Office eventually admitted to their errors in handling Paige’s husband’s visa application, but no easing of the rules was offered.
“[If we’d been successful in our application] there would be no lingering anxiety about: ‘Will my child’s father ever be taken from her for whatever reason?’,” says Paige.
She continues: “Starting a family at whatever stage in your life, whether planned or a surprise, shouldn’t come with plans and preparations around what a government department would want or expect our relationship to look like.”
“We have the avoidance of healthcare due to unnecessary fear of deportation. I have had a patient who has avoided NHS care they are entitled to because of the fear of an overzealous immigration policy”
Paige has seen people choose to have an abortion due to the difficulties created by the hostile environment and empathises with their pain. “You shouldn’t have to make a decision like that because of them. But I could never blame or judge anyone for doing so. If we had faced a pregnancy in 2017 or 2018, knowing what we were going through at the time, I probably would have made the decision to not proceed”, she says.
Barriers to care
Dr Dolin Bhagawati, a London based neurosurgeon and the Vice Chair for Doctors Association UK, says that NHS staff are increasingly being used as an “unofficial arm of the immigration service”, due to pressure to check and report their patients’ immigration status. This can make many immigrants too afraid to seek care — a crucial aspect of pregnancy.
For Dr Bhagawati, demanding to look at the passport or visa of someone who needs care is anathema to why he became a doctor. He adds: “We have the avoidance of healthcare due to unnecessary fear of deportation. I have had a patient who has avoided NHS care they are entitled to because of the fear of an overzealous immigration policy”.
Between immense financial pressures, stresses surrounding immigration status, and fears of deportation, the hostile environment is devastating for those who want to start a family. Quite simply, it’s just not an option for many of us.
After my miscarriage, a nurse asked me how I wished to deal with the remains of my foetus: did I want to bury it in the graveyard or dispose of it as medical waste? I have been on antidepressants ever since.
This is not how a fair and just immigration system operates.
*This name has been changed
Featured image is an illustration of a woman of colour, hugging her knees as she sits on the floor with her back to a window. The light that passes through the window creates an ominous shadow around her in the shape of a Union Jack
Page last updated July 2021