David Cameron’s “no ifs, no buts” pledge to cut immigration to the tens of thousands has met with approval from many quarters. But what’s the human cost of such a target? Hannah Dunleavy speaks to a couple who have already fallen through the cracks.
Alistair and Carrie are packing their bags for Malta. The couple, who married in 2012, are hoping to get jobs in the tourist trade and then take it from there. On the one hand, it sounds like an adventure. On the other, with the jobs and housing markets as they are and them in their late 20s, maybe now’s the time to start putting down roots, build a career, put cash aside for a home, maybe even start a family. If you said that to them, they’d agree with you. They just don’t have a choice.
Carrie is American. She met Alistair while they were both teaching English in Russia. (He later moved to the news agency Interfax and her to KPMG.) In December, Carrie was made redundant after a restructuring at her work, so they decided to head back to his home in Buckinghamshire, where he got a job on temporary contract. Carrie, as a non-EU citizen, came on a tourist visa, meaning she can’t earn any money to support them. She has been working, though, as a volunteer, teaching English to people who do have the right to remain in the UK. It’s the first of many ironies I find in their story.
“I hate not being able to work,” she says.
“There’s a rhetoric,” Alistair adds, “about the migrant who doesn’t want to work. This is the reality.”
For Carrie to be able to work she’d have to be sponsored by a company who would then have to prove there was no one else within the EU who could do that job. Or, she’d need the right to remain in this country indefinitely, meaning Alistair had to earn the equivalent of a salary of £18,600 in the first six months they were here. It’s a target he describes as “ludicrous”.
“There’s a rhetoric about the migrant who doesn’t want to work. This is the reality.”
“It’s all about not being a burden to the taxpayer. But there’s no flexibility. We’re both under 30; if we both work our net contribution over our working lives is going to be way more than we take out. But, unless you hit this benchmark, your partner can’t stay. It’s a blunt instrument.”
It’s a benchmark, I’ve discovered, that’s a lot easier said than done in a competitive jobs market that increasingly requires people to be on zero-hour or short-term contracts, or, tougher still, be self-employed. And it’s a target Alistair’s failed to achieve. So Carrie needs to leave and he faces a choice he bluntly describes as “separation or exile.”
“We’ve written to MPs and ministers,” he adds, “but we just get the reply, ‘sorry, but that’s the law.’”
They’ve chosen Malta not because they have any contacts or prospects there, but because there should be work – for the summer at least. Carrie too can work, as she is the wife of an EU citizen. (Again, ironically, if Alistair was from Malta, or anywhere else in the EU, his wife would have the right to stay and work in the UK. “James Brokenshire, the Minister for Immigration, said he wants a system based on fairness,” Carrie says. “But there’s a difference between fairness and justice.”)
“The best we can do is waitering or hotel work,” Alistair says. “And no disrespect to anyone who does those jobs, but we’ve got university educations. And if we don’t find jobs? We’ll have to live on our savings.”
Can they apply to come back to the UK after the summer is over?
“No,” he replies. “They want you to move what they call your ‘Centre of Life’ outside of the UK. So that’s what we’ve got to do.”
“I saw David Cameron on TV during the General Election talking about his wife. About how important she is to him and how much he relies on her. That was really tough to take.”
So what does the future hold?
“I don’t know,” Carrie says. “I go on Facebook and see my friends putting up pictures of their babies. I know we can’t do that.
“And this is all coming from a [political] party that claims to be pro-marriage, pro-family. I saw David Cameron on TV during the General Election talking about his wife. About how important she is to him and how much he relies on her. That was really tough to take.”
And while the British Government remains committed to cutting immigration but unable to do anything about Freedom of Movement within the EU, it seems they will have to continue to cut around the edges if they wish to hit their self-imposed targets of a net immigration of below 100,000 people a year.
“There are blogs and Facebook groups where you see people are in the same position as us,” Carrie says. “This is happening to thousands of couples a year. I think it’s 17,000 families affected by this.”
“And,” Alistair chips in, “an awful lot of people are one redundancy away from being in the exactly the same situation.
“When people talk about immigration, they see the big numbers. They see it in the abstract. They don’t see people’s stories. It’s surprising how few people know this is actually breaking up couples, breaking up families.
“If you ask people if we should do something about immigration, lots of people in this country would say yes. But if you asked them if we should split British citizens from the non-EU partners?”
So what can people do to help? Can we sign something? Can we write to someone? Can we…
“No,” he says, with a surprising lack of rancour. “These are the rules.
“I just think people should know about it. Tell people, tell your parents. Tell them that this pursuit of the 100,000 immigration figure has a human cost.”
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.