Class, citizenship and the transnational family

Class, citizenship and the transnational family

Ala Sirriyeh

When I met Simon, he had not seen his wife Helen for over a year. After living abroad for a short period in Helen’s home country, Simon had returned to the UK because he was struggling to manage a serious health condition due to limited access to effective treatments. In the UK, and in poor health, he was not in employment. He spoke about his deep sense of loneliness as he faced an uncertain future. If he returned to his wife’s country, where they had built a life together, he would not be able to access the medical treatment he needed. However, if he remained in the UK where he was born and had lived all his life, like many other British citizens in transnational relationships, he faced doing so alone. This was as a result of changes to the family migration rules. In July 2012 the government raised the minimum income threshold from £5,500 to £18,600 for people sponsoring non-EU partners to join them, rising further if dependent children are being sponsored (MRN 2012).  Consequently, many couples and families have been forced into living apart.

In a 2015 paper for Critical Social Policy, I argued that, in the context of international migration and transnational relationships, the now familiar class-based moralism and regulation that we see in austerity Britain has been entwined with long-standing exclusionary discourses on ethnicity, national belonging and citizenship and extended beyond the nation-state border towards the governing of transnational families. Since then, I have conducted interviews with British citizens and residents for a wider study on experiences, agency and choice in transnational living apart together (LAT) relationships. Five of the 13 people (4 men and 1 woman) I interviewed had been affected by the family migration rules. In this article, I review the key argument made in the CSP paper on the justifications made for the introduction of the 2012 rules. I then draw on this subset of interview data to examine the impact these rules have had on people’s lives.

A burden on tax-payers
People from a range of social backgrounds engage in transnational relationships. However, not all receive the same degree of attention. British Asian populations have for decades experienced racist marriage migration policies based on an assumption that there is an inherent tension between successful integration and transnational marriages, with a particular focus on working class Muslim communities. Justifications for restrictions on net migration to the UK are often made through a seemingly pragmatic ‘lifeboat politics’ rhetoric that calls for a balancing of the books to keep the nation afloat (denying racism). However, a primary justification for restriction is the protection of national sovereignty, identity and citizenship.

This was openly admitted by the then Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that the 2012 family migration policy was, ‘not just about numbers; it is also about ensuring that people are able to integrate and participate fully in British society’ (Hansard 11 July 2012: Col. 54).  Britishness defined in this sense has a strong class element which has become increasingly prominent in UK immigration policy. As Kamila Shamsie (2014) has suggested, ‘citizenship laws are rapidly moving to the point where the only criteria for becoming British will be your bank balance’.

The 2012 rules mean the UK has the second highest minimum income thresholds in Europe. There are also conditions placed on acceptable sources of income, further discriminating against low-income families. Calculations of income cannot include benefits, the foreign partner’s overseas income or loans. Given the income threshold requirements, there has been a focus on exclusions based on this economic dimension of class. However, this exclusion also infers the presence of class-based judgements about morality, respectability and lifestyle that determine people’s location within or outside boundaries of citizenship and inclusion.  Income-based discrimination in family migration policy is tied up with and justified through judgements about what good and responsible citizenship entails. Under the activating welfare state, good citizens must live within their means, be self-sufficient and take responsibility for their lives.

The Home Office (2012) has asserted that the change in family migration policy is ‘to ensure that the sponsor can support them [dependents] independently without them becoming a burden on the State’ [my italics]. Transnational relationships among those on low incomes are seen as an irresponsible expense while four participants I spoke with said the integrity of their relationship was also questioned as their foreign partners had been viewed with suspicion as ‘fraud artists’ or taking their British partner ‘for a ride’.

In a context where citizenship and belonging are statuses to be proved and earned, the perceived limited economic contribution from some citizens, when combined with their transnational personal relationships appears to throw into question the extent to which they feel for, are committed to, and contribute to the nation.  Responsible British families engage in paid employment rather than claiming welfare, do not live in housing 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, those on low incomes who are in transnational relationships are deemed to be living beyond their means and in need of being disciplined.

‘In Britain you are married BUT…’
Joseph (all names are pseudonyms), a participant in my study, contrasted his experience of trying to sponsor his wife with the experience of a wealthy relative of a friend, concluding, ‘they are being targeted for being working class or lower working class because if you are a millionaire another law applies […] This law is directly causing a lot of suffering’. Forty-seven per cent of the British population would not qualify to sponsor non-EEA partners under the 2012 minimum income rules (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration [APPG] 2013). Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) (2012) and others have also observed that some social groups (some minority ethnic populations, women, young, people, those living outside London) are disproportionately affected by this change in policy.

All five of the participants in my study who had been affected by the new rules spoke of the distress they had experienced being separated from their partners.  Four spoke of a severe deterioration in their mental health with two reporting that they had begun drinking heavily and another two taking prescribed medication.

‘I don’t think straight any longer. That’s how much it’s affected me. Mentally I’m a broken man. I just don’t see where the future is leading me.’ (Richard)

‘I’m completely different as a person. Before I was free flowing, easy going. Now I’m so highly strung. Any little thing makes me stressed, makes me panic, makes me overthink things.’ (Sophie)

Like other transnational couples, most people used video calling services to stay in contact but spoke of the difficulties of poor internet connections and managing time zone differences. Two people spoke of the challenges of trying to hold complex and often emotional conversations through Skype and their distress at not being able to hold or comfort their partners. In addition to the distress of being separated from their partners, all participants spoke of the heavy financial costs of trying to maintain relationships and sponsor their partners’ migration. Faced with these financial and emotional pressures, John and his partner decided to relocate together to another EU country (with John still having to return to the UK frequently for work) and attempt to return to the UK through what is known as the Surinder Singh route.

In the 1992 Surinder Singh case, the EU Court of Justice ruled that under EU law Mr Singh was entitled to live in the UK with his wife because she had previously exercised her right to free movement by working in Germany. The Court ruled that an EU citizen who has travelled to another Member State to work and returns to their home country has the right to be accompanied by their partner and children whatever their nationality. Consequently, some British citizens have challenged the erosion of rights to family life in the UK by claiming rights through EU citizenship. Joseph and his wife also decided to follow this route. However, as Joseph observed, he and others like him were the lucky ones who had jobs, language skills and other resources that enabled them to relocate to another EU country. This would not be a feasible option for many couples affected by the rules. Meanwhile, in light of the 2016 Brexit vote this route to family reunification in the UK is in jeopardy.

The 2012 rules intruded into the everyday lives of these couples and played a significant role in directing key decisions in their life such as where they lived, career decisions and when they had children. Sophie eventually managed to bring her partner to the UK after demonstrating she could meet the threshold with allowances made for her maternity leave. However, she observed the precarity of this reunion as the new rules have also extended the time partners have to wait before applying for indefinite leave to remain from 2 years to 5 years. The couple had put on hold their plans to have a second child. As she said, ‘for us that means for the future realistically we can’t have a baby, another baby until we have indefinite leave’.

A clear narrative that emerged in the stories told by these British citizens was a sense of a loss of citizenship. As Simon explained, ‘I feel disconnected from the UK. I feel like a second class citizen because I can’t be with my wife and have a normal relationship. I feel really sort of alienated almost. I’m not sure this is my country.’ The family migration rules highlight that it is not only migrants who have become marked and held outside the borders of belonging but that citizens also feel the erosion of their ‘citizenship’ rights and expulsion from the national boundaries of belonging. In the 2012 rules class-based moralism is tied to concerns about identity and integration to produce a hierarchical ordering of acceptable and less acceptable family formations. This impacts on the ability of low income people in transnational families to enact rights to family life. 


Ala Sirriyeh is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Science and Public Policy, Keele University. For more on this research see: Sirriyeh, A. (2015) ‘‘All you need is love and £18,600’: Class and the UK’s New Family Migration Rules’, Critical Social Policy, 35(2), pp.228-247.