‘Can’t Buy Me Love’

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

As of 9 July, the UK will have one of the world’s highest income requirements for people to reunite with their family.

Background on the 9th of July

On 9 July, the UK-based Migrants Rights Network is co-organising an event in the House of Lords entitled ‘New family migration rules: dividing famililes, disrupting integration.’ Following a consultation, the UK coalition government has changed family reunion rules, which enter into force that day. This meeting will hear from parliamentarians from across the political parties, family and children’s charities, migrant groups and individuals who would be affected by the rule changes. Migration Policy Group and Runnymede Trust, the UK MIPEX partner, wanted to make a MIPEX impact assessment of these new rules. I will present the following briefing with international evidence on income requirements and their impacts on integration and family life.

Money can’t buy me love?

After 9 July, British citizens and non-EU UK residents with less than £18,600 cannot reunite with their non-EU spouse/partner. Applicants can only meet this fixed threshold through their wages, non-employment income (e.g. property), or significant cash savings—with exemptions for disability-related benefits and carer’s allowance.

With less than £18,600, a British citizen or non-EU UK resident could more easily reunite with their spouse in nearly every other major country of immigration in the world—except their own. This briefing used the most recent government and academic sources to calculate estimates of the income levels for sponsors to reunite with their spouse or partner (for EU countries, the amount reflects the requirements for non-EU sponsors/spouses). The UK has now set an income threshold that is higher than in all other major Western countries of immigration, besides oil-rich Norway.

The UK income requirement is tighter for four reasons. Firstly, traditional countries of immigration like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand do not put a dollar amount on reuniting with one’s spouse or children. An income requirement only applies for parents or other adult dependents. Secondly, several other countries do not set a fixed amount (e.g. DK, DE) that must apply to all applicants (similar to the UK’s previous policy). Thirdly, some of those countries with fixed amounts do not use them as thresholds, but rather as reference points (e.g. SE, ES, PT) to then assess the applicant’s individual circumstances. Finally, most Western countries of immigration allow applicants to prove that they meet the income requirement through all legal means, including their benefits.

According to MIPEX, the conditions for societal integration improve when families are reunited and have the basic essentials that people in the country generally need to live on. The MIPEX results show that most Western countries of immigration set the benchmark for the income requirements as equal treatment with nationals, namely the national level of income support. The requirement for a reuniting family is the same minimum that applies to all families in society. Sponsors can use any legal source to prove that they have a basic income, either around the level of social assistance (in 7 MIPEX countries, updated July 2012) or minimum wage (in 16). Several countries monitor the requirements to guarantee that they do not expect more of reuniting families than they do generally of families. For example, Portugal recently lowered the income requirement because the economic crisis has forced everyone to get by with less, including immigrants. Sweden also designed a 2009 income requirement in a way that explicitly aimed to incentivise integration and not reduce family reunion.

According to MIPEX, the conditions for societal integration improve when families are reunited and have the basic essentials that people in the country generally need to live on. The MIPEX results show that most Western countries of immigration set the benchmark for the income requirements as equal treatment with nationals, namely the national level of income support. The requirement for a reuniting family is the same minimum that applies to all families in society. Sponsors can use any legal source to prove that they have a basic income, either around the level of social assistance (in 7 MIPEX countries, updated July 2012) or minimum wage (in 16). Several countries monitor the requirements to guarantee that they do not expect more of reuniting families than they do generally of families. For example, Portugal recently lowered the income requirement because the economic crisis has forced everyone to get by with less, including immigrants. Sweden also designed a 2009 income requirement in a way that explicitly aimed to incentivise integration and not reduce family reunion.

Pink = No requirement or income around level of social assistance

Blue = Income around level of minimum wage

Black = Higher levels (e.g. linked to job / no social assistance)

MIPEX suggests that anything beyond a basic income is unnecessary for promoting integration. The UK’s new income requirement is only comparable to the most restrictive countries, where, in many cases, the far right has helped make immigration more politicised, bureaucratic, and volatile. A limited number of European countries fix high thresholds and restrict income sources largely to employment or investment. Often, these countries even restrict the family reunion rights of their own citizens. These high income requirements are recent, rarely evaluated, and often contested. The 2011 Belgian requirements are before the Constitutional Court. The new Danish government coalition recently lowered the financial requirement and promises further reform. The Norwegian government is also discussing to adjust its 2010 threshold because of its unintended consequences.

Impacts on integration 

Existing studies and government evaluations do not find that a higher income threshold effectively promotes integration. The UK Home Office’s Impact Assessment expects that the new requirements will have a short-term negative impact on employers and the economy, but positive impacts on integration and social cohesion. Higher income requirements in Denmark, The Netherlands, and Norway have had limited benefits for labour market integration. An evaluation by the Dutch governmental agency WODC found that the higher income requirement raised labour market participation for some newcomers, but mostly before and during their application as sponsors. After family reunion, their labour market participation returned to normal levels. These limited short-term gains were also found in Norway and Denmark.

The reasons why are suggested by the WODC evaluation and a qualitative Dutch study. People who are committed to living with their family often scramble to meet the income requirements in any way possible. These sponsors, especially women and young people, can end up in short-term employment, such as overtime or low-skilled, undesirable, or dead-end jobs. This type of work creates stress and health issues, but few long-term prospects. High income requirements can also have unintended consequences on education, as some sponsors drop out of higher education and long-term tracks in order to get a salary that meets the requirements. This minor and momentary uptick in labour market participation is not an indicator of sustainable progress on integration. There is hardly any data to suggest that income requirements promote education, language learning, or the fight against forced marriage.

Impact on family reunion

Instead, the clear effect of a high income requirement is to reduce the number of family reunions, especially for vulnerable groups in the population. Bivariate analysis of MIPEX scores and Eurostat statistics reveals a very strong positive relationship between non-EU family reunion policies and rates. Countries with restrictive policies tend to have fewer reuniting non-EU family members. Specifically in Denmark, The Netherlands, and Norway, the introduction of high income thresholds, alongside other measures, has been associated with sudden and sharp declines in family reunion.

These requirements also tend to have a so-called ‘self-selection’ effect. They are more likely to discourage vulnerable groups, such as young adults, the elderly, lower-educated, people from specific countries of origin, people coming from armed conflict zones, and, to some extent, women. Studies from Denmark, The Netherlands, and Norway find that income and employment requirements disproportionately discourage migrant women from becoming sponsors, because women have greater childcare responsibilities and depend more on part-time or informal work. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) observes that income requirements generally limit family reunion in time of high levels of unemployment and poverty, especially among those disproportionately affected by the economic crisis, such as young people and men working in precarious sectors. These requirements may even discourage the immigration of skilled workers and international students—the very immigrants that many countries have been trying to attract. This evidence from other countries matches the UK Home Office’s own impact assessment. The government expects that the new measures and income threshold will reduce the number of family reunions by between 13,700 and 18,500 per year—or 35-45% per year.

Unintended consequences 

The unintended consequences of these declines in family reunion are difficult to quantify.  The UK Home Office Impact Assessment states that the new policy will have a significantly negative impact on potential sponsors and their families abroad. These families are often invisible in the public debate. The impacts are varied—families may be persistent, resettled, delayed, or deterred. Migration statistics only capture persistent families with the resources to meet the requirements.

The second option—resettlement in another country—is probably used by relatively few families, since these routes are limited, costly, and risky: moving to another country, a work or humanitarian permit for the spouse, visa overstaying, unauthorised entry, or false documentation. The so-called ‘EU route’ occurs when EU citizens move legally to another EU country and reunite there with their family under EU law (e.g. from The Netherlands to Belgium, Denmark to Sweden, or Germany to Austria). Resettlement in another EU country is a real option for a very lucky few. For example, only a small number of Dutch couples used the EU route between 2005 and 2008. Interviews in Denmark and The Netherlands observed that EU route sponsors tended to be young, relatively successful both socially and economically, and originally living near the border. These people have the resources to move, find new housing and jobs, and secure legal advice on family reunion. Qualitative research among Danish couples in Sweden identified the major positive and negative effects of the EU route. First and foremost, couples can finally live together. Secondly, couples were willing to live in another EU country and see no future for themselves in their (or their parents’) country of origin. Negatively, these arrangements can cause great stress in a couple. The sponsor must be able to commute or relocate their job. Spouses can become dependent on their sponsor and isolated from family and friends. If they do well in the new country, their success may be bittersweet for their sponsors. The spouse and children may start learning a language and putting down roots in a country that is foreign to the sponsor. Over time, return to the sponsor’s own country becomes less and less likely.

Many more couples may have had to delay their plans to live together. For example, focus groups in The Netherlands suggest that the higher Dutch family reunion requirements forced the average family to wait 15 extra months. Applicants under 21 waited an average of 30 months to meet the higher income requirement, which had a disproportionate impact on young people entering the labour market. The fourth and final group—deterred families—applies to an unknown number of people. Since family reunion rates generally do not return to their previous or projected levels, it is safe to conclude that many families are still not able to apply. Delayed or deterred couples must live in ‘long-distance commuter marriages.’ The sponsor must frequently return to their country of origin and/or their family must secure repeated tourist visas to visit them. This burden falls particularly hard on working-class families, middle-aged and elderly people, and non-EU citizens.

Conclusion

The UK is slowly becoming one of the least favourable places for non-EU residents and even its own citizens to reunite with their families. Traditionally, the conditions for families to enter the UK were ‘average’ in comparison to most European countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Today, the UK is one of the few countries with not only a high income threshold, but also a pre-entry language test and wide restrictions on eligibility (e.g. adult dependents) and the rights of reunited families (e.g. access to benefits, indefinite leave to remain). A high income threshold does not effectively promote long-term economic participation, education, language learning, or fighting forced marriages. Instead, such requirements have a disproportionate impact on limiting the number of family reunions, especially for low-income and vulnerable groups. For many, family life becomes harder or impossible through ‘enforced separation.’ The OECD finds that every extra year that child spends in country of origin and not in country of destination has a negative impact on their language learning and societal adjustment. The OECD’s conclusion is that family reunion should be facilitated as soon as possible. British policy actors must strictly scrutinise whether the new family reunion requirements exacerbate some of the very problems that they are supposed to address.

Approximate income required for sponsors to reunite with spouse/partner (as annual income) 
Norway NOK 232,400 (£24,850)
United Kingdom £18,600, level generally below income-related benefits
Netherlands €18,872 (£15,168), excludes certain benefits
Belgium €15,084 (£12,123), excludes certain benefits
Denmark No fixed threshold, excludes certain benefits, plus bond of DEK50,000 (£5,405)
Germany No fixed threshold, excludes certain benefits
Switzerland Discretionary, depends canton-by-canton
Ireland Discretionary
United States $18,912 (£12,079)
France €12,840 (£10,320), excludes certain benefits
Finland €10,800 (£8,681)
Austria €9,521 (£7,652), excludes certain benefits
Spain €6,384 (£5,131)
Sweden SEK52,488 (£4,829)
Italy €5,350 (£4,300)
Portugal €5,064 (£4,070)
Poland €1,440 (£1,157)
Canada None, only for parents or other adults, generally CAN$22,229 (£14,003)
New Zealand None, only for parents or other adults, NZD$27,203 (£13,960)
Australia None, only for parents or other adults, AUD$10,000 (£6,561)

Exchange rates calculated on 04.07.2012

 

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