Much has been written and said over the last two weeks about the current policy of Donald Trump’s government which separates children from their parents at the US border. The images of children being put in apparent cages, audio of them crying and reports of breastfeeding children separated from their mothers have been likened to concentration camps. It’s such an abhorrent policy that it has even prompted Laura Bush, wife of George W, to write in the Washington Post about how it breaks her heart. Yet here in the UK we have our own immigration policy which separates families. You do not see cages of children – but that doesn’t mean that the separation doesn’t happen.
A few years ago, my family took the decision that I should move back to the UK to further my career, while my wife and children stayed in Argentina, where we had been living. The money I was earning abroad was nowhere near what I could earn back in the UK so it made sense for all of us for me to move home. My daughter, who has special needs, had to stay abroad as the various types of therapy she needed were being covered by health insurance in that country. The NHS would never have provided the same level of support for her needs as it did where we were living, and we would have had to fork out thousands of pounds privately in the UK if we wanted to keep that fully funded support going. It effectively left us with no choice.
I spoke to my wife and children every day on Skype after I moved in on my own. At first I felt I could cope, but week by week I felt myself growing apart from my family. At the time my children were just one and three years old respectively. For their dad to suddenly have disappeared was, to put it lightly, confusing for them.
After three months of living that way, I ended up with anxiety and depression and became a psychiatric inpatient at a private hospital. I had simply not realised what a strain the separation would have on my wellbeing. Being taken away from your support system and your children is a burden that feels manageable in the abstract but is harder than you could ever imagine in reality.
Eventually we were reunited when my family were able to come to the UK. But even now when I look back at what we experienced as a family, it sends a chill down my spine and I wonder how we coped. For other families, there is no choice involved. I was fortunate that what I earn was not a barrier to bringing my spouse over, as it is for many others.
Back in 2012, new immigration rules came into effect which mean that sponsor partners for non-EEA nationals are required to earn a minimum of £18,600 a year, rising to £22,400 to sponsor a child, with an additional £2,400 for each additional child. Almost half the adult population and many families with children don’t earn this much. These are the so called “Skype families” whose label needs no explanation.
A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner researched the impact of this policy on 100 such families. The report found that these children often experience eating and sleeping problems; slow or poor language development, and can display anger and violence towards peers and family. These are things which are happening to British children but our government does not appear to care.
We have created a system where these individuals are given a Hobson’s choice between living in your country of birth and living with your family. There are cases of families who may have gone to live abroad, lost their jobs and now cannot come back with their families until they earn enough money.
The policy also means that a British citizen caught in this situation may not be able to take on or look to retrain for a job where there are huge levels of unfilled posts such as nursing or teaching. Even when individuals do find a job with sufficient income to meet the requirements of the law, they still face additional challenges and costs. The Children’s Commissioner’s researchers calculated that the cost for a single applicant to move from application to settlement is likely to exceed £6,000 – an enormous sum for those on low incomes.
The reason behind this policy of course was to placate the tabloid readers foaming at the mouth at too much dependence from foreign nationals on welfare benefits. Yet what if those left without their families end up like I did with their own health problems and became a burden on the NHS as a result of the forced separation from their families?
Mental health is supposed to be a priority of this government but when was the last time Theresa May spoke to the British son or daughter of a Skype family to see how they are feeling about being forced to live apart from Mum or Dad thanks to her immigration policies?
I have been there and know what it is like to be temporarily separated from my family – it nearly destroyed me. This is a burning injustice which Theresa May could end tomorrow, if only she had the will to do so.