The other day, a friend showed me the folder he had to present to the Home Office when he applied for his spouse visa. It was very heavy, loaded with pictures from holidays, email print-outs, shared utility bills, wedding pictures, a copy of their house tenancy agreement and many more things. He joked about how the folder represented 7 years of relationship with his now wife. It got me thinking. Besides the permanent sense of insecurity that the migrant experiences with the continuous changes of immigration legislation (so brilliantly described here) the Home Office has now managed to enter into the private lives of international couples. In order to apply for a spouse visa, the Home Office advises to follow a number of guidelines and to create a certain paper trail, in order to prove the genuineness of a relationship. This means that many couples might open a shared bank account not because it will be useful to them, but because it can be used as proof of their relationship. An international couple will be compelled to keep a archive with their travel tickets, might decide to take photographs of certain moments, might write to each other not because they want to, but simply in order to live up to the script requested from them by the Home Office. I personally find this to be an incredible violation of intimacy. When two Britons decide to get married nobody will ask how much they know each other or whether they have ever visited each other's hometowns. Nobody will make a judgement call on the way they choose to get married. With international couples (that is, a Briton with a non-Briton or a European citizen with a non European citizen) it is different. The Home Office has established an official version of what they consider to be a genuine/true relationship and it has started demanding that British citizens with migrant spouses perform this very idea of relationship.
I have always been fascinated by the Home Office's concept of acceptable physical "proof" for love, an emotion that is by its very own definition, intangible. The Home Office's obsession with cutting down numbers to "tens of thousands" of migrants has led to its hysteria about sham marriages. There is no way of telling what the real numbers might be, but this hasn't stopped some from spreading claims that 1 in every 5 marriages is a sham. It used to be the case that a couple was allowed to marry, and if the migrant then applied for a spouse visa the Home Office would assess the "authenticity" of the relationship. This system has now been substituted by a pre-emptive approach. The Home Office now prefers to storm directly into weddings and prevent British and Europeans citizens from getting married to third country nationals if they hold any suspicion over whether theirs is a genuine relationship. In November 2013, for instance, the Immigration Enforcement Police suffered a big embarrassment when they stormed into the wedding of an Italian-Chinese couple. They had been alerted by the town hall that the wedding might be a sham, because the Chinese bride had failed to properly spell out the full name of her groom Massimo Ciabattini and because her visa was due to expire. After interrogating them and bridesmaids for 30 minutes (and possibly ruining a very important day in their lives) the Home Office arrived to the conclusion that their relationship was indeed genuine. The visa's expiration date might've had played a role when they chose their wedding date, but this did not make their relationship any less genuine.
Few international couples speak about the fact that the current immigration legislation compels them to fast track the stages of the relationship. Reading the news the next day, what struck me the most were the comments made by a Home Office official that the fact that "the couple were "extremely good-looking" and wearing expensive, tailored clothes, including a real Chanel handbag, would have been a clue that it was genuine". Their physical looks and the money they had chosen to spend on their wedding attires became the wild card that proved their genuineness.
The current government has succeeded in its declared intention to create a "hostile environment" for migrants, forgetting this affects not only foreigners but also Britons. The government's default position of mistrust towards migrants often directly affects the British citizens who have stable and prolonged interactions with them, and this becomes especially evident in the case of international marriages. Some of the red flags that raise suspicion include the failure to give details of the partner such as parents' names the amount of guests invited to the ceremony and whether family members were present.
The UK government and a simplistic definition of what constitutes a real relationship are conditioning personal and intimate decisions of many Britons. Relationships are beautiful because they are unique, they evolve organically and they might not fit under one specific script. The fluidity in the way we relate to each other clashes increasingly with a very clearly defined script of what a relationship is according to government officials. And yet, few people seem to protest against the interference of the Home Office in their most private affairs.
This blog is part of the Open Generation platform run by Migrants Rights Network. The platform aims to give a voice to under 30s on the issues of immigration and EU free movement. Find out more here: www.opengeneration.org.uk or follow us @opengeneration