The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown families up and down the country into unprecedented hardship and uncertainty.

Tens of thousands of British families – including the key workers risking their lives to keep others safe – have been left living in fear for their futures during the pandemic and beyond, due to immigration rules that split apart families based on how much they earn.

Our new research, Families on the Front Line, shows the surge in families facing fear of separation. 

Download the report

I love my job, but it’s heart-breaking that as a key worker I still don’t earn enough to live in my home with the person I love
Temi, co-ordinator at an NHS oncology clinic

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown families up and down the country into unprecedented hardship and uncertainty. Tens of thousands of British families – including the key workers risking their lives to keep others safe – have been left living in fear for their futures during the pandemic and beyond, due to immigration rules that split apart families based on how much they earn.

British citizens and other UK permanent residents with a partner from outside Europe must earn at least £18,600 a year if they want to build a life here together. Those who do not earn this salary face a stark choice: live here without the person you love or leave your home and the rest of your family forever.

This rule, known as the Minimum Income Requirement (MIR), has caused immense hardship since it was introduced in 2012, and left families suffering years of separation, living on different continents indefinitely and getting by through daily FaceTime calls.

It’s hard for people to understand how tough it is not being able to see your loved one for months, or even years, because of this policy. My husband is missing seeing our daughter grow up – he had to watch her take her first steps over a WhatsApp call
Erika, care worker

Read the full report below, or click here to write to your MP, asking them to make sure no family has to live in fear of being separated because their income drops during this global pandemic.


Introduction

Many of those who are priced out of a family life are the very key workers who have kept the country going during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare assistants, care workers and people working in education, amongst others, are classed as essential workers, often risking their own health to save lives and keep people safe during the pandemic – yet the Home Office claims that allowing them to have their partners live with them would be harmful to society. As a result, they are dealing with the crisis without the person they love by their side.

What’s more, tens of thousands of families who have already established a life together in the UK have found their incomes reduced because of COVID-19. On top of the economic hardship this causes, they’re also living in fear of the non-EEA partner losing their right to stay with the rest of the family in the UK, because they will no longer be able to meet the Home Office’s income requirement when they apply to renew their right to stay together here.

During lockdown, people keep telling me to try and relax and enjoy time with my family – but I simply can't, because I’m petrified this will soon be ripped away from me. If that happens, I’ll be left having to raise our children alone

Tasha, former nursery worker

JCWI has seen a huge surge in enquiries from families desperately worried not just about staying safe during the pandemic, but also about how they will stay together and navigate the complex application system. Over 7000 people have accessed our information portal with advice for those navigating the spouse visa system during the pandemic. Over 100 families have contacted us directly over the past six weeks, in desperate need of guidance as to how their applications will be assessed if they cannot meet the financial requirement.

The Home Office has so far refused to give these families the certainty they need, by dropping the income rule during this emergency. Instead, it has insisted on dealing with applications where the financial requirement is not met on a case-by-case basis, requiring people to use the ‘exceptional circumstances’ route. The result is that families who may already be struggling financially are forced to risk thousands of pounds to make a visa application that do not technically meet the rules, in the hope that the Home Office caseworker will apply common sense and flexibility in deciding their case.

However, recent experience of couples who have been refused a visa despite their compelling circumstances suggests that casework departments are not equipped to deal with applications where the requirements are not met. Further, trust in the Home Office has been so eroded by experiences like these that many applicants have no confidence in any promises of flexibility. Many instead feel forced to put themselves and their families at risk by continuing to work when it is not safe to do so, as a means to ensure that they meet the Minimum Income Requirement and are able to keep their families together.


Figures at a glance

The workers who, in spite of their essential and life-saving work, don’t earn the right to a family life in the UK

The workers who, in spite of their essential and life-saving work, don’t earn the right to a family life in the UK


Recommendations

  • Immediately suspend the Minimum Income Requirement for couples living together in the UK – Tens of thousands of couples are living in fear of not being able to stay together because of a drop in income. It is not fair, and not safe, to expect people to meet a fixed income threshold during a pandemic. Maintaining the MIR means people will feel forced to go out and work in order to protect their families’ future together.

  • Lift the No Recourse to Public Funds restriction – People in the UK on a spouse visa are not able to access essential financial support during the pandemic. Many families whose income has fallen are barely scraping by because of this. The NRPF restriction must be lifted during the pandemic, so that all families can access the support they need.

  • Repeal the Minimum Income Requirement for all applicants – The MIR is already out of reach for over 40% of the UK’s population, many of them the essential workers on whom we depend. As the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is felt, more and more people will find themselves separated from a loved one because of how much they earn. Evidence so far suggests that this impact will increase the existing ethnicity pay gap – the only way to ensure that some communities are not discriminated against due to not being able to afford the right to a family life is by repealing the MIR altogether.


Families in limbo

Before the pandemic hit, over 40% of people across the UK were already earning less than £18,600 a year, and would therefore face heartache and separation should they happen to fall in love with someone from outside Europe. As the full economic impact of this global crisis begins to be felt, this proportion is likely to rise to unprecedented levels, with many more people out of work or in insecure and low-paid work.

For now, huge numbers of those who are separated from loved ones because of the MIR are the very same ‘key workers’ whose contribution during the pandemic is rightly applauded. The average annual salary for a healthcare assistant – the people who provide essential and life-saving care when people in hospital are at their sickest, and whose work currently puts their lives at risk on a daily basis – is just £18,000. Over 100,000 NHS staff in England earn less than £18,600 a year. Around half of women who work full-time in the care industry have an annual salary of less than £18,600 a year. The median annual salary for women working part-time in the care industry was just £10,603 in 2019.

Erika, care worker

Erika works for a small charity, supporting people with learning disabilities to live independently. She and her husband met in 2018, and they have a young baby together. The family is currently split between the UK and Brazil, and Erika works 60-hour weeks earning £9 per hour whilst caring for her family alone, struggling to meet the Home Office’s Minimum Income Requirement to bring her family together. Her dream is to become a nurse, but the MIR has so far stopped her from doing so, because she will not be able to earn enough to bring her family together while she is doing her training course.   

It’s a struggle, emotionally and physically. If my husband was here, he’d be working to support us, but as it is, I’m working 60-hour weeks and looking after my family alone, just so he can join us.  

So many people are talking now about how hard it is not being able to see their families because of the pandemic – but their families are just down the road. It’s hard for people to understand how tough it is not being able to see your loved one for months, or even years, because of this policy.  

My husband is missing seeing our daughter grow up – he had to watch her take her first steps over a WhatsApp call. It was my birthday last week, and the only present I wanted was to have my husband here with me. But for us, that was impossible. 

Erika and her family, separated by Home Office rules because of Erika’s income

Meanwhile average annual pay for teaching assistants, who make up 25% of the UK teaching workforce, is estimated to be between £13,600 and £15,900. 

Rebecca, teaching assistant supporting children with special educational needs

Rebecca and Chuck met in 2014, when she was teaching English in China. They fell in love, married and had a child together. When their son was around 2 years old, it became apparent that he had complex needs, and he was eventually diagnosed with autism. The support he needed wasn’t available where they were living in China, so they made the difficult decision to return to the UK. This would mean being separated from Chuck for at least 6 months while Rebecca worked to meet the UK’s Minimum Income Requirement. Those six months stretched into 2 years, as Rebecca struggled to find a job that would pay her enough, whilst having to care for her son alone. She works as a teaching assistant, supporting children with Special Educational Needs – she is now classed as a key worker, but doesn’t earn enough to have her own family together.

Before COVID-19, life was difficult. It was on hold, and I was forced by the government’s visa rules to be a single parent. I started working as a one-to-one teaching assistant, working with children with special needs. When I got home, I’d care for my son, who is autistic. He has complex social, emotional and communication problems. I love him with all my heart, and care for him as best I can. But his life and mine were so much better when we had his father, my husband, supporting us.

I would never have imagined that how much money you earn determines whether you can have a family life or not. I haven’t been able to see my husband in person in 764 days. My love for him is stronger, but the pain is exhausting. Our son asks me every day when his daddy is coming home – once, he even asked me if his daddy was dead.

We’ve been self-isolating for six weeks. My son isn’t coping well, and I so desperately want support. I have to face my loneliness head-on. Before this pandemic, I was told my job was ‘low-skilled,’ and I didn’t earn enough to deserve having my family together. Now, I’m being told I’m a ‘key worker.’ But obviously still not key enough to have my family all together under one roof. Everyone says we’re all in this together – but are we?

Rebecca hasn’t seen her husband – the father of her child – in 764 days because of Home Office rules

Any fixed income threshold will inevitably affect some people more than others. Due to the gender pay gap, women are less able to earn enough to sponsor a partner from outside Europe. In fact, over 80% of women in part-time work earned less than £18,600 a year. Certain communities, too, are disproportionately affected by these rules, due to the ethnicity pay gap. In 2018, for instance, a worker from a Bangladeshi background would earn on average £2.43 less per hour than a White counterpart – for people working 37.5-hour weeks, that’s a difference in annual salary of over £4,700. What’s more, the government has known since before the income threshold was introduced that it would discriminate against people from certain ethnic minorities, and even published data showing that this would be the case. However, this discrimination was considered ‘proportionate.’ 

There is already evidence that the existing ethnicity pay gap will be exacerbated by the economic impact of COVID-19, with factors like inequality in the amounts of assets and wealth held by households and greater probability of people from some communities being in insecure work meaning that the UK becomes increasingly unequal as the economic impact of COVID-19 hits. This in turn will mean that the discriminatory impact of the current rules increases, with some people statistically much less likely to be able to earn the right to a family life than others. 

Temi, cancer care co-ordinator

Temi* is British, and her husband Laurence* is from Nigeria. They have a 1-year-old son, and Temi is 4 months pregnant with their second child. Laurence missed the birth of their first child because Temi, despite being a clinic coordinator at an NHS oncology department, did not earn enough to sponsor his visa. She is determined that this won’t happen this time around, so she is continuing her work helping cancer patients access life-saving care, and is also working as an assistant in a shop to supplement her income.

I’m currently still working because I can’t afford to let my pay drop. Due to the hostile rules, my husband already missed the birth of our first child, and neither of us want to go through that again.

Every day that I go to work I’m anxious and afraid, hoping I don’t catch the virus – it’s not just me at risk, but our unborn child and our 1-year-old son, too.

I love my job, but it’s heart-breaking that as a key worker I still don’t earn enough to live in my home with the person I love.


Families in fear 

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing hardship and uncertainty for families up and down the country, with huge numbers of people facing a catastrophic drop in income, and many separated from the people they love most due to the lockdown.

For families where one of the partners is from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), the stress of the current situation is compounded by the fear that economic impact of COVID-19 will mean not just hardship now, but also the risk of their family being split up down the line.

Since the beginning of March 2020, JCWI has been contacted by dozens of families who are desperately concerned about their future together in the UK. After their first 2.5 years together in the UK, UK residents and their non-EEA partners must apply for a second spouse visa, in order to stay together in the UK. When they reapply, they must prove that they have jointly been earning an annual salary of at least £18,600 for the six months prior to the application date (or 12 months if they are self-employed or have a fluctuating income). As long as the couple have met all of the Home Office requirements throughout the process, the non-EEA partner must apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain after 5 years – and the couple must again prove that they meet the financial threshold.

Salma, care worker

Salma* has lived in the UK with her British husband Ahmed* for 2 years. They will need to apply to renew her visa in a few months, so she can stay here with her husband and their young child.

He usually works full-time and earns £18,000, while she works part-time providing essential care for young adults with physical disabilities. Their income is normally over the threshold – but they live in fear of it dropping below that, and never more so than during the pandemic.

The protection at Salma’s place of work is far from adequate – her employer doesn’t provide face masks, despite the intimate care she provides for her clients – but she doesn’t feel able to complain, because her situation is so precarious. And if the worst happens and she does fall ill, she’ll have to face not just a deadly disease, but also the prospect of being separated from her family because she no longer meets Home Office rules due to the drop in her income.

I struggled for 2 years to meet the Minimum Income Requirement. I experienced discrimination and racism in the job market, and was passed from one short-term contract to another and unable to meet the stringent rules for proving my income. That meant our family life was put on hold – it meant my wife’s father never got to know our child, his first grandchild, because he passed away just 4 months before our spouse visa was finally granted.

Now, Salma is scared to go to work, risking her life every day to work with inadequate protection, because she’s scared we won’t meet the MIR for our next application in July. The government doesn’t realise what people go through to get a spouse visa. It’s a violation of our human right to a family.

Maintaining the financial threshold during the pandemic means that tens of thousands of families are living in fear, and in some cases going out to work when it is not safe to do so, because any drop in their income could put their future together in the UK at risk. It is not fair – or safe – to expect people to earn above a certain level during a pandemic, or risk being separated from their loved ones.

Tasha, former nursery worker

Tasha and Adnan have been married for 5 years, and have a 4-year-old and a 14-week-old baby together. Tasha previously worked in a nursery – but since she earned less than £18,600 from this work, she couldn’t sponsor Adnan’s visa to join the family in the UK. In the end she had to give up her job and raise their eldest child by herself for 3 years, until she was finally able to fulfil Home Office requirements and get Adnan a visa to join the family.

Adnan has been here with his family here for years. But now, just before they apply to renew his visa, he has lost his income as a barber due to the pandemic. With Tasha still on statutory maternity pay, they fear being split up again because of not meeting the MIR to renew Adnan’s visa. The worry about how they will keep their family together in the UK has been overwhelming, and Tasha has been suffering from panic attacks as a result.

Just when I thought we were over our worst hurdle – after a years-long struggle to get my husband to the UK in the first place, due to the Minimum Income Requirement – we’re hit with a major new worry.

During lockdown, people keep telling me to try and relax and enjoy time with my family – but I simply can't, because I’m petrified this will soon be ripped away from me. If that happens I’ll be left having to raise my children alone again, as I did for the first 3 years of our eldest’s life.


Forced into destitution

Whilst worrying about their future, couples like these are also struggling to get by now, because people on a spouse visa are barred from accessing benefits. This means that a couple where one partner is a British national or settled resident and the other is here on a spouse visa can only claim benefits to cover the British national. A couple who are over 25 and have no children, for instance, would receive a basic allowance of just over £100 a week. JCWI has been contacted by couples who are racking up credit card debt to buy groceries, because half of their household is barred from accessing the financial support they need during this crisis.

If such couples find themselves unable to cope financially, and apply to have the No Recourse to Public Funds restriction lifted, they will have to wait a total of 10 years, rather than 5, before the non-EEA partner is able to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. This means someone on a spouse visa having to pay to extend their visa 3 times, rather than once, before applying for a more stable form of leave. Currently, this would mean an individual paying £11,311 in visa fees and health surcharge from first entry to obtaining ILR, rather than £6045 – or an additional £5266. It would also mean having a less secure immigration status for an additional 5 years.

JCWI is contacted on a regular basis by people who have not been able to apply to extend their visas because of an inability to pay visa fees. Many people in this position go on to fall out of status, and become vulnerable to the Hostile Environment, because of an inability to pay visa fees. This will become an even greater concern due to the economic impact that the pandemic will have on families, meaning huge numbers of families may be at risk of falling out of status. Lifting NRPF restrictions completely is the only way to ensure that families in this position do not have to choose between becoming destitute now and being unable to maintain their immigration status years down the line.


Concerns about decision-making

Government ministers have stated that nobody’s immigration situation will be detrimentally affected due to circumstances beyond their control, and that applications where the MIR is not met will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, recent experience by couples who have been denied visas simply because of their financial situation, despite their compelling circumstances, raises real concerns about the ability of caseworkers to assess applications falling outside the requirements.

One couple supported by JCWI were refused the right to be together in the UK in late 2018 because the British sponsor’s income fell just short of the income requirement. The sponsor was told he that he and his partner could simply move to the US, and continue to provide daily care for his mother, who has severe mental health issues, from there.

Another family were told that they would not be allowed to be together in the UK because they narrowly missed meeting the MIR. The caseworker decided that it would not be in the best interests of the family’s 4 British children, who have attended school here their entire lives, to have their father here with them, and that if the family wanted to be together they should do so in another country.

Cases like these, many of which have been met with outrage when covered in the media, mean that confidence in Home Office decision-making is also extremely low among applicants. Many will therefore not trust assurances of flexibility on the part of caseworkers.

Likewise, the Home Office’s pronouncement that applicants worrying about keeping their families together during the pandemic are welcome to use “income from investments and property rental” to meet the MIR will ring hollow for people who are struggling to get by and stay safe. A complete suspension of the Minimum Income Requirement will be the only way to ensure that nobody feels forced to work when it is not safe to do so, in order to keep their families together.

* names have been changed to protect anonymity.

For more information please contact: 

Mary Atkinson 
Families Together Campaign Officer, JCWI 
[email protected] - 0207 553 7463