“I was left with two choices: remain in a long-distance marriage, or leave the UK” – a Brit living in Belgium tells her story

Anneke Newman was born in Uccle to British parents. A British national all her life, she attended the European School in Woluwe, before going on to read for a bachelor’s degree in Human Sciences at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She subsequently completed a Master’s degree in Gender and Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, after which she worked for a couple of years outside of academia. Anneke returned to Brighton in 2009 to begin a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, where her research focussed on the educational decision-making strategies of Muslim families in the North of Senegal.

While conducting field work for her thesis in Senegal, she fell in love with a local Senegalese man, Seydina Diakhate. They got married in 2011, and lived happily together in Senegal for eighteen months. Eventually, however, Anneke had to return to the UK in mid-2012 to complete her PhD. Seydina was unable to obtain a visa to join his wife in Britain, and so the couple were obliged to live in a long distance relationship for the next six years.


Anneke with her newborn baby, Madina, and her husband, Seydina


What follows is the transcript of an interview I conducted with Anneke last week, where she explained, in often painful detail, how the enormous obstacles she faced in obtaining a ‘leave to enter’ visa for her husband have impacted her marriage, her career, and ultimately her entire future.

Thomas Moller-Nielsen (TMN): What happened when you moved back to the UK in 2012?

Anneke Newman (AN): Well, Theresa May was the UK Home Secretary back then, and she worked to implement the Tories’ policy to bring immigration down to so-called “sustainable levels” – in other words, trying to make it as difficult as possible for immigrants to come to the UK.

One of the policies she implemented upon becoming Home Secretary was to make it impossible for a Brit who earned less than £18,600 a year (before tax) to bring their non-EEA spouse (i.e. a spouse who is not a national of at least one of the member countries of the European Economic Area) over to the UK: this was called the “minimum income threshold”.

I was a PhD student at the time earning £14,000 a year, so obviously I fell well below the required threshold; in fact, in 2015 a study found that almost 40% of the working British population fell below this threshold. This meant that I couldn’t bring Seydina over – at least, not until I had finished my PhD. So, basically, we were forced to live a long-distance marriage for several years.

TMN: How hard was it to be in a long-distance marriage?

AN: It was very hard. It took a huge emotional toll on us both because of the uncertainty. But I believed at the time that there was a silver lining: once I graduated, we’d finally be able to live together.

TMN: What happened when you graduated?

AN: I took up a one-year teaching position at the University of Sussex, where my salary now pushed me above the income threshold for being able to apply for a ‘leave to enter’ visa for Seydina. But as I started investigating the steps in the process for getting the visa, I quickly realised that things were going to be far more complicated than I initially thought.

TMN: Why?

AN: Well, for one thing, I could only apply for the visa after I had been earning above the £18,600 threshold for more than 6 months. My work contract was a one year, fixed-term deal but there was a very high likelihood that it would be extended. However, there was a good chance that the Home Office would use the fact that I didn’t have a permanent contract against me in my application.

TMN: What else did the UK government ask for?

AN: We would have needed to fill out an 85-page application form, and provide evidence that we were in a “genuine relationship”, one which we could prove dated back several years. They wanted us to show them a huge amount of personal information like pictures, Skype conversations, WhatsApp messages, things like that.

This posed many problems for us. First, we couldn’t prove that a lot of the pictures we had taken of us together weren’t taken recently. Second, we didn’t have WhatsApp messages or Skype conversations that dated back five years: I’d changed phone and email addresses multiple times over the years, as had Seydina, so we didn’t have access to the records of the very first messages we were sending to one other back in 2011. And thirdly, the records that we did have were in French, so we would have had to pay for a government-certified translator to translate them for us – which wouldn’t have been cheap.

TMN: Did they ask for anything else?

AN: We were also told that we had to pay a £1,500 application fee, with no guarantee that our application was going to be accepted. And that isn’t even the end of it: even if we were successful, the original ‘leave to enter’ visa would only have been valid for two years, after which we would have had to apply for ‘permanent settlement’ , with a whole new set of processes and legal and financial hoops to jump through – that application costs £6,000!

TMN: Did you apply in the end?

AN: No. The immigration lawyer I saw – I remember he was Polish – told me that if there was any way we could go and live in Europe instead we should go, and that we shouldn’t bother applying for the ‘leave to enter’ visa in the UK. I appreciated his honesty. And he was right: I’ve met many couples since then who applied for the visa in the UK – couples who were often in a far better situation than us, in steady employment and in a more comfortable financial situation – whose applications had been rejected, often on utterly spurious grounds.

For instance, at a conference recently I met an Indian woman who had married an Englishman. They are now living in Germany because she couldn’t get a visa to live in the UK with her husband. It was absurd: she was highly educated, she could speak fluent English, and her husband earned good money. Their application was watertight. But the Home Office rejected their application because, they claimed, they didn’t believe they were in a “genuine relationship”.

TMN: And now they’re living together in Germany!

AN: I know. I don’t have hard evidence for this, but based on accounts from whistleblowers about the treatment of other categories of immigrants like asylum seekers, my strong suspicion is that the Home Office puts pressure on its employees to reject ‘leave to enter’ visa applications. They therefore end up telling many couples that they don’t believe their relationship is genuine simply as a pretext for rejecting their applications.

TMN: So what did you decide to do, if you weren’t going to be able to live with Seydina in the UK?

AN: Well, I basically had two choices. One was to remain in a long-distance marriage. The other was to leave the UK. I chose to the leave the UK.

TMN: And you ended up in Brussels?

AN: Yes. Back in 2016 I had been applying for a lot of academic jobs, most of which were based in the UK. One of the non-UK jobs I had applied for was a postdoctoral position in the Anthropology Department at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). In November 2016, the ULB told me that they would offer me the position. Given what the immigration lawyer had told me, I didn’t think twice about taking the opportunity.

Yet, I felt ambivalent about leaving the UK. For one thing, I found my job at Sussex fulfilling and worthwhile. It involved doing something that I consider to be valuable for British society, namely teaching a “Foundation course” to enable young people from less privileged backgrounds to undertake a degree at the University of Sussex. A lot of my students were from low-income families, or minority groups; some of them had lived in foster homes; some struggled with mental health issues, serious health problems or disabilities. I enjoyed teaching them; and they apparently enjoyed me teaching them as they nominated me for an award! But, because of Seydina’s visa issues, I couldn’t go on teaching them. When I told my students that I was leaving, and why, one remarked: “It’s like Romeo and Juliet, but in an era of xenophobia!”

Another point that I think is worth noting here that my university education was, in fact, heavily subsidised by the UK government, and thus by the British taxpayer, through scholarships and artificially low undergraduate tuition fees. In other words, the UK had invested a lot in me, and I, in turn, was in the process of giving something back to the UK through my work.

In short, I’ve lost out, the UK has lost out, the young adults I was teaching have lost out – all because of the UK government’s immigration policy.

TMN: That sounds terrible.

AN: Yes. Another thing that’s terrible, at least for me personally, is that, while I love living in Brussels and have a fantastic three-year contract here, there are very few permanent academic jobs available in Belgium, whereas there are many more opportunities in the UK. So, as a result of leaving Britain, I might have to reconcile myself to a career outside of academia, which is the career I really want to pursue and which is the career I’m currently really progressing in. I want to be clear, it’s not that I have anything against Belgium, and we may have chosen to live here regardless of what is going on in the UK. I also recognise that having a British passport still puts me in an extremely privileged position, globally speaking. It’s just that I feel that my choice to live in the UK with my family has been taken away from me. It’s almost as if I’m in forced exile! As a British citizen, this situation is absurd! Living in the UK is an option that I would obviously prefer to have available. For instance, I’d like to be closer to my parents if ever they need more support once they get older…

TMN: Has the UK government done anything to address these issues?

AN: Not to my knowledge. In fact, there was a government report issued in 2015 by the UK’s Children’s Commissioner which argued, essentially, that children’s human rights are being violated by the UK’s stringent immigration policy in relation to non-EEA spouses. According to the report, at least 15,000 children have been affected by the UK government’s policy, because the non-EEA parent (usually the father) cannot enter the country. British children are often growing up in single-parent families, with the financial insecurity and emotional stress that entails, all as a direct result of such government policies.

TMN: What did the UK government do as a result of this report?

AN: To my knowledge, absolutely nothing. The media also barely covered it.

TMN: The UK government ignored its own report?

AN: Yes.

TMN: How easy was it for you to move to Belgium with Seydina?

AN: It presented its own set of challenges, but was easier than getting Seydina into the UK, and I’ll explain why. Each of the world’s countries has its own rules concerning family reunification for its own citizens. But, as an EU national, if you want to move to a particular country that is not your own with your non-EEA spouse, EU freedom of movement laws will apply, rather than the laws of that particular country concerning its own citizens. And, as it turns out, it’s often far easier to bring a non-EEA spouse over under this EU law than it is to get a spouse visa if you’re actually from that country.

TMN: Are you saying that – at least prior to Brexit – it’s easier for, say, a French, or German, or Polish person to move to the UK with his or her non-EEA spouse than it is for a Brit with their non-EEA spouse?

AN: Yes. So, for instance, for a French national to move to the UK with their non-EEA spouse, it’s pretty easy: they don’t need much more than a marriage certificate. It’s also precisely this EU loophole which made it easier for me to get Seydina a Belgian residence permit, compared to the equivalent in the UK.

Obviously, the current UK government doesn’t like this rule. But, so long as they remain a member state of the EU, they can’t do anything about it. My strong suspicion is that, with Brexit, the UK government may impose restrictions on spouse visas for Brits married to Europeans that are similar in severity to the requirements currently in place for Brits married to non-EEA spouses. I mean, UK politicians are currently talking about potentially forcing EU nationals to get employment visas to work in the UK just like citizens of non-EEA countries. So why not spouse visas, too?

There’s another bit of EU legislation that is relevant here. Because I’ve lived in Belgium with Seydina for more than six months, I am now entitled, under EU law, to return to my home country with him if I choose to. So I could, theoretically, move back to the UK right now with Seydina, and EU law would entitle me to do so, and I would not be subject to the UK’s strict regime. This is called the ‘Surinder Singh’ immigration route, and has been used more and more by Brits married to non-EEA nationals since 2012. Again, the UK government would prefer it if this route were not available, which it won’t be after Brexit.

TMN: So will you move back to the UK?

AN: Under the current circumstances, it’s very, very unlikely. I have my job here now; my contract runs for another two and a half years. Seydina and I have also recently had a baby, and we have friends here. There is so much uncertainty surrounding Brexit generally that the UK isn’t a very attractive place to move to right now. Also, the British government has a pretty dreadful track record on immigrants’ rights whether we’re talking about the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation, the incarceration and forced deportation of asylum seekers including children, and the pigs’ breakfast they’ve made of the process Europeans need to go through to achieve ‘settled status’ to stay in the country after Brexit. I’d be worried that even if I managed to get Seydina into the UK now, he might lose the right to stay later on. There are, after all, plenty of cases of people with ‘indefinite leave to remain’ who have lived in the UK for decades who have recently been forced to leave. In the current political climate, our moving to the UK just isn’t a risk worth taking.

– For more information about Anneke’s situation, please see this article that she wrote (anonymously) for the Guardian a couple of years ago.

 – To get in touch with Anneke, please write to annekenewman@gmail.com

 – To get in touch with the author of this article, please write to tmollernielsen@brussels-express.eu