Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Governing the International Family

by Ala Sirriyeh, Lecturer in Sociology

A few days after Valentines Day, I stood in the supermarket queue contemplating who might be so confident as to buy a reduced priced Valentine's Day card from the display for next year. Coming straight after Christmas and New Year, some people find themselves faced with a gauntlet of public celebrations that centre heavily on the themes of family and love. Even if they share my sentiments on such over-commercialised, over-sentimentalised events, it must be difficult for those who have to endure these days while living apart from their partner or family. While a number of people do, to some extent, choose to engage in living-apart-together (LAT) relationships, for others separation is of a more enforced nature. This is currently the situation facing a number of British citizens and residents who are in a relationship with a partner from a non-EEA country (European Economic Area).

On the 9th of July 2012 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government's new family migration rules came into force. These new rules introduced a steep rise in the minimum income threshold for UK citizens and residents who are seeking to sponsor their (non-EEA national) partners and children to join them in the UK for family formation or family reunification. Until the new rules came into force British citizens and residents who were settled permanently in the UK and were sponsoring family members to join them were required to show that they had an income that was equivalent to the level of Income Support that a family of that size would receive in the UK. This would demonstrate that the sponsor could provide for these dependents who would not have recourse to public funds. Building on existing conditionalities for family formation and family reunification migration, the 2012 family migration rules impose further conditionalities including, in particular, a sharp increase in the minimum income threshold levels from the previous level of £5,500 per annum to a new minimum level of £18, 600 per annum. This threshold rises further according to the number of dependents being sponsored with an additional income of £3,800 for the first child and an additional £2,400 for each further child. This means that the UK now has one of the highest minimum income thresholds (second only to Norway). Unlike many other countries, in the UK this income must be gained from the employment of the sponsoring partner in the UK and cannot include benefits, property assets, the foreign partner's overseas income, subsidies from a third party or loans.

The new rules have attracted sustained criticism over the past year and a half from those families who have been affected by these changes and their supporters, and the rules have recently been the subject of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Migration. The APPG observed that in 2012 47 per cent of the UK's working population would not have qualified to sponsor a non-EEA partner to join them in the UK. Some minority ethnic populations, those living outside London, young people and women are disproportionately affected. Family migration and, in particular 'marriage migration' has long been a policy theme through which anxieties around ethnicity, identity and ‘integration’ are channelled. However, the new family migration rules indicate that class is now more explicitly weaved into the picture (although it has always to some extent been a significant factor in its intersections with ethnicity).  It is not simply the immigration of particular ethnic groups or nationalities that is restricted, controlled or discouraged. The changes introduced by the new family migration rules also throw into question the citizenship status and inclusion of some British nationals, including white British citizens as well as those minority ethnic citizen populations who have long been a focus of such debates. In addition to ethnicity and nationality, the hierarchical organisation of acceptable and less acceptable international partnerships and family reflects class-based inequalities and a connected moralising discourse about valued family life.

The family is often a vehicle through which the state exerts social control based around particular conceptions of morality and social worth and the identification of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' populations. These discourses have been reinvigorated yet again through the politics of austerity and the further restrictions and conditionalities that have been introduced by the Coalition (and previous New Labour government) on access to social security. In the context of globalisation and international migration it appears that this class-based moralism has also been entwined with exclusionary discourses on ethnicity, national belonging and citizenship and has been extended to govern particular kinds of international family. The government has framed the new policies as aimed at reducing the burden of the British taxpayer. In a television interview on the Andrew Marr show last year Home Secretary Teresa May stated that it was a matter of principle that British citizens sponsoring their partners to join them should be able to support their dependents without recourse to public funds.

In her book Revolting Subjects, Imogen Tyler describes how the poor have become regarded as 'failed citizens'. The new minimum income threshold effectively links the right to family life (set out in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) with income levels and those on lower incomes are effectively lesser citizens as they find that this right has been eroded. Just as responsible families engage in paid employment rather than sitting on welfare, do not live in housing that is beyond their means and do not have more children than they can afford to support; personal relationships have been commodified and ordered into basic necessities and luxuries. In contrast to transnational elites, the new family migration rules imply that those on low incomes who are in international relationships are living beyond their means and need to be disciplined. 

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