Will new UK family reunion policies cap migration or fight exclusion?

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

Two weeks ago, I lead the UK MIPEX users’ training: how can governments and advocates use international information to inform a future UK policy on integration? Yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron addressed his Conservative party outlining his approach to immigration and settlement. He mentioned two recent UK proposals that I used during the training in order to show how MIPEX can “fact-check” politicians’ evidence-base.


Two days before the Users’ Training, the UK became better equipped in the fight for evidence-based migration policies, thanks to the new Migration Observatory. At the training, Ben Gidley of COMPAS at Oxford University, who is working on this national data-source, presented how UK researchers can add MIPEX to their international arsenal of statistics. MIPEX is already in the hands of several actors in British debates on integration like Runnymede Trust, a MIPEX national partner.

The UK’s new coalition government wants new legislation from arrival to citizenship but so far lacks direction, as it plans for consultations in the coming months. My presentation contained two examples that Prime Minister Cameron mentioned during last week’s remarks:

“But as well as abuse of the system, there are other problems with the family route. We know, for instance, that some marriages take place when the spouse is very young, and has little or no grasp of English. Again we cannot allow cultural sensitivity to stop us from acting. That’s why last November we introduced a requirement for all those applying for a marriage visa to demonstrate a minimum standard of English … and we will defend the age limit of 21 for spouses coming to the UK.”

1) “Very young spouses”

According to MIPEX , 2008’s 21-year-age-limit made the UK’s eligibility requirements for family reunion set slightly unfavourable conditions for societal integration, dropping 10 points on that dimension:

In fact, now the minimum age for non-EU couple to reunite is higher than the minimum age for British residents to marry. With this age limit, the previous government’s objective was “to do everything we can to prevent forced marriage.”

Applying MIPEX to age limits

The UK Government referred to marriage visa rules in other European countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. Actually MIPEX finds that equal treatment remains the international standard, with most countries in Europe and North America treating all married couples over 18 like adults:

These few countries with an unequal age limit have also faced questions about its proportionality and effectiveness. The measure affects not only forced or sham marriages, but all genuine couples who are now kept apart longer. Moreover, many debate whether these age limits even meet their objective in practice. The number of forced marriages is unknown and data on the age limits’ effectiveness is limited and disputed. Check out Colin Yeo, a UK immigration and family law practitioner, who regularly blogs on this issue. Government plans to evaluate the measure. Still, government has not yet addressed the Home Affairs Committee’s call for better evidence about the effects of raising the age.


2) “No grasp of English”

At the UK users’ training, I demonstrated how the “Improve Your Score” function lets anyone make a prospective impact assessment of a new policy. I used another example mentioned in the UK Prime Minister’s speech: the new language requirement for family reunion, which was introduced in November 2010, after the MIPEX III deadline. Most non-EU spouses, civil partners, same-sex partners, and unmarried partners who cannot speak A1 level English (basic understanding) before they arrive in the UK will be refused the right to reunite with their spouse.

Applying MIPEX to pre-entry tests

The UK’s previous conditions for family reunion were “average” compared to most established immigration countries like Germany or the US. With the introduction of the pre-entry test, the current family reunion conditions are slightly less favourable for the integration of families:

The UK test, scoring 57, goes only halfway to support and reward English language-learning. Interestingly, the German pre-entry test has similar strengths and weaknesses.

The approved UK tests are supposed to be professional. The basic English level is attainable after an estimated 40-50 hours’ tuition for many learners.

But many others cannot. A few groups are exempt—Check out the UK Border Agency’s Youtube video directed at migrant spouses. Some native-speakers are obviously exempt (only from English “majority”-speaking countries). Other clear exceptions cover holders of certain degrees in English, the elderly, some physically/mentally disabled persons, and long-term residents of small or war-torn countries without a test centre like the DRC, Ivory Coast, and Somalia. The major group not exempt are people who cannot afford or access the available and often expensive professional tests and courses. No exemptions are made for the illiterate.

The government’s assessment did not fully consider all these costs to access courses and tests abroad. The MIPEX scores suggest that the pre-entry test may only be an integration incentive for spouses abroad who can pay and an integration obstacle for those who cannot. These spouses cannot then move to the UK, where, ironically, many have learned English through free ESOL courses under previous governments.

“Consistent with practice in other countries”?

Government’s impact assessment claimed this A1 practice was consistent with practice in other countries. MIPEX demonstrates that it’s consistent with practice in few other countries. All countries in light pink have no such requirement:

Pre-entry language tests for families are rare across the EU. They are also absent from the thinking in traditional immigration countries like the US & Canada, which MIPEX finds will encourage both labour and family migrants to settle and participate. On the above map, the darker is the shade, the weaker is the support for spouses to actually pass these requirements overseas. As you can see, hardly any government has been able to design a pre-entry requirement for families scattered around the world that will likely improve their integration once reunited in the country. For example, little support is given to learn a language like Danish abroad—and even less so for Dutch. Only France has used its network of migration and language representatives abroad to provide free courses for all and provide exemptions for those cannot access them.

From policies to people: the prospective impact of pre-entry tests

These tests are largely untested for their integration effectiveness. Only recently have they spread from the Netherlands to France, Germany, Denmark and now the UK and soon Austria. Most consulted British organisations agreed to the government’s objective on learning English, but did not think that a pre-entry test will achieve that.

The measure will benefit private sector language institutes abroad, with an estimated windfall from test and tuition fees of £2.5 million. The economic benefit for migrants themselves is only estimated £1.2 million—and that only if the language skills help a small number of spouses get slightly higher incomes. The assessment admits that this scenario is unlikely, given firstly the high levels of unemployment in the UK and secondly the high language levels that migrants often need for employment. It therefore lists several broad non-monetised benefits: fewer translation needs for municipalities, fewer language needs for migrant children, and greater social cohesion. The promise was made to replace the policy if it does not meet these “success criteria” but I think they’ll be very hard to measure.

The proposed evaluation concentrates on the easier-to-measure data on inflows: the net flow of those rejected, exempt, and accepted. The impact assessment assumes that 15% of couples will fail to pass these new requirements. While spouses try to pass from their home country, it estimates that these couples will be kept apart for an additional 1-to-2 years. Applications are therefore expected to fall and rejections to increase. The administration expects this will bring them more casework, costs, an increase in costly court challenges like the EU’s recent Chakroun case. Indeed, the test may not be compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This “numbers game” reflects the dominant British debate about the “migration cap.” David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine reports that language requirements for spouses are “expected to have quite big effects” on “reducing that flow.” The little data available from other countries suggests that these recent inventions do not have this effect. The forthcoming INTEC research project found that tests have reduced “flows” – but only temporarily. The numbers rise again. International experience suggests that pre-tests are unlikely to affect the migration cap, whether or not this was the intention.

INTEC also did not find any data that these tests abroad have meaningfully raised language levels, while their focus groups with migrants suggest that they will never be as cost effective as language courses after arrival.

The only major and visible effect was to discourage and delay arrival, enrollment into such courses, and full integration in society. For instance, we have unambiguous data for children, thanks to the OECD’s now famous PISA study, showing that every extra year spent in the country of origin has on average a negative impact on how well they learn the language and excel in all areas. The OECD concludes that family reunification needs to occur as early as possible in order to expose them society and the education system. I wonder whether the recommendation will change much as the OECD expands its data from children to adults. UK government and researchers need to exert close scrutiny over whether this pre-entry test exascerbates the very problem that policymakers meant it to address.