Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group
A Home Office consultation frequently lists policies in selected ‘other countries’ to support new proposals on family reunion. In fact, few other countries do what the UK proposes. The few countries with such measures have not yet proven that they meet integration objectives in practice, since data on forced and sham marriages is unknown and evaluations of their effectiveness are limited and disputed. After these changes, families including non-EU immigrants would face some of the most restrictive policies in the UK with a family reunion ranking of only 27th of 31 countries in Europe and North America.
On 13 July, Home Secretary Theresa May invited the public to a consultation on family reunion (ending 6 October) with the aims to stop abuse, promote integration, and reduce the burden on the taxpayer. Several proposals to fight sham and forced marriage would change current practice, administrative structures, and criminal law. My unofficial impact assessment focuses on family reunion as law measured on these 37 MIPEX policy indicators. Decreases in the MIPEX score indicate (1) whether changes to fight the limited number of sham or forced marriages may have a disproportionate impact on the greater number of genuine couples and families and (2) whether other proposals may prove ineffective for promoting integration in the long-term.
This consultation table neatly sums up the Home Office’s proposed new changes for family reunion law:
Interestingly, the consultation introduces several of the new proposals that Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders has obliged his country’s minority conservative government to advocate at EU level (e.g. tighter income requirement, max. one partner every 10 years, Danish attachment assessment).
Are UK proposals supported by policies in most other countries?
The consultation frequently lists policies in selected ‘other countries’ to support these proposals. I fact-checked this with all 27 EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. In fact, few other countries do what the UK proposes.
- No 21-year-age-limit: Equal treatment remains the international standard, with around 23** of the 30 other countries treating all married couples over 18 like adults. **Does not include NL
- No pre-entry test: Rare in the EU and absent in traditional immigration countries, hardly any country of the 6** with pre-entry tests have been able to design one for families scattered around the world that will likely improve their integration once reunited in the country. **Includes AT
- No attachment requirement: Only Denmark and Netherlands test spouses’ knowledge of the country before they arrive. Since 2002, no country has followed Denmark’s “national attachment requirement”.
- No conditions for children nearing 18: 24 other countries do not impose any additional conditions on children nearing 18. All minor unmarried children are eligible in nearly all countries, although some countries have different laws on adoption or shared custody.
- Only basic legal income required: Equal treatment is the standard benchmark. Sponsors in around 24** other countries can use any legal source to prove a basic income either at the level of the country’s social assistance or minimum wage. MIPEX suggests that anything more is unnecessary for promoting equal outcomes for immigrants and nationals. **Does not include NL
- Only basic housing required: Equal treatment is also the benchmark. Sponsors in around 25 countries** can use any legal means to prove they have basic accommodation meeting general health and safety standards, without additional bureaucratic procedures. **Does not include NL
- Lower language levels than in Life in the UK Test: For permanent residence, most countries only require levels A1 or A2. Only Denmark, Estonia, and Germany explicitly require B1 or higher. MIPEX found the UK’s current approach to be slightly favourable and flexible for learning English, scoring 68/100. Applicants can show progress according to their abilities by taking the Life in the UK Test (estimated at B1) or an ESOL course using a citizenship context. Requiring all to take the Test would set unrealistic bars for many willing learners to succeed, scoring only 18/100.
How significant are these reforms for the UK?
One key MIPEX finding is that policymakers within and between different countries increasingly disagree on how to apply new conditions to immigrants. Since 2007, 11 European governments lost a few MIPEX points with minor restrictions on eligibility and conditions for family reunion. But none has gone so far back on its commitment to the right to family life as the UK government, losing 10 points for several of the proposed changes (6 points) and for recent changes (4 for the 21-year-age-limit and pre-entry test being challenged in court):
After these changes, families including non-EU immigrants would face some of the most restrictive policies in the UK with a family reunion ranking of only 27th of 31 countries in Europe and North America.
Why? On this MIPEX assessment, the proposal does not seem to affect several areas because they are already restricted in the UK, much more than in other countries: greater eligibility for adult dependents in 21 of 31 MIPEX countries, equal access to social benefits for reunited families (24 others), clearer access to autonomous residence (18), and fewer vague grounds for refusal or withdrawal (10).
Most significantly, the UK would keep families out of the country with some of the most restrictive eligibility and conditions. Besides the changes listed above, this includes a new definition of a ‘genuine and continuing relationship’ that could restrict options for genuine stable couples. In 2007, eligibility and conditions for family reunion in the UK were ‘average’ for most immigration countries. After these changes, they would only compare with Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, and Switzerland, where the far right has helped make immigration policies increasingly politicised, complex, and volatile:
These several small changes could be removed from the proposal, without compromising other plans to fight sham and forced marriage. If adopted, MIPEX warns that all these restrictions together would make conditions in the UK slightly unfavourable for promoting integration. These measures affect not only forced or sham marriages, but all genuine families. Many sponsors may either have to leave the UK, or wait longer for their family, with every extra year abroad negatively impacting the children and partner’s eventual integration in UK society. The few countries with such measures have not yet proven that they meet integration objectives in practice, since data on forced and sham marriages is unknown and evaluations of their effectiveness are limited and disputed.