Before I say anything else, allow me to be the first to admit that immigration is a sticky topic. The unavoidable truth is that immigration is one of those topics where both extreme views are incorrect. It is, indeed, true that the UK cannot take on an unlimited number of immigrants from all over the world, no matter how well-educated, well-adjusted, and well-prepared they are for life in the UK. The opposite is also true: The UK economy would suffer greatly from not taking in any immigrants at all.
There are migrant workers coming to the UK every year, boosting the country's GDP, and generating a large amount of money for the tax coffers. Banking, the oil industry, the high-tech industries, and the burgeoning special effects industry are but a few examples where foreign expertise is absolutely crucial. Chuck out all the foreign talent and these industries -- and many more besides -- would collapse in on themselves.
So, whilst immigration is undoubtedly a tricky subject, the UK government has navigated itself into a bit of an impossible corner. On the one hand, it has very publicly said it is going to limit the amount of migration to the UK. The sticky part is that there are parts of the migration patterns it cannot do anything about, due to international treaties etc. Specifically, the EU's right to move and reside anywhere within the EU is without limits.
Is the unlimited right to roam within the EEA area a good idea? I don't particularly have an opinion either way, but that's the law, and the upshot is that it becomes impossible to turn away an EU citizen who rocks up at the border with a knapsack and an eager eye for opportunity.
I think this touches on one of the points that often falls by the wayside when people talk about migration. It's about people -- people like you and me. People who have decided to make one of the biggest and most important decisions in their lives: To pick up their entire existence, leaving friends, family, and the familiar behind, moving to a new country.
If it appears that I know more about EEA migration than any other sound-of-mind adult might know, it is because I am one of those immigrants.
About thirteen years ago, I was fresh off the boat (literally, although I hasten to add that disembarking at Newcastle is less glamorous than it might sound), heading off to Liverpool to start my journalism university course. As someone who had grown up in Norway (with a population of less than 5 million...), the big shiny lights of Liverpool, the unfeasibly short skirts, and the incredible amounts of Stella consumed by my peers (and, later, by myself), was something to behold. "My god," I remember thinking. "So this is what the big world is like."
At the beginning, I had no intention of staying in the UK. Over the years, however, my plan to go back to Oslo at the end of my journalism degree fell by the wayside, and I set up my first company soon after I left university. Liverpool was my gateway drug, as it were; for all its quirks, it showed me a few of the things that makes the UK a great place to live.
Fast forward the best part of a decade. I'm living in London; I've just had an idea for a new product (which, two years and six employees later, is turning out to be a rather promising success), and I'm doing pretty well. However, something is over-shadowing everything else in my life: I'm in love.
Yes, I am -- truly, properly, and very much in love. She's hot (why not!), awesome (of course), talented (what else) and from the USA (unfortunately). She's here in the UK with some obscure job description that basically translates into 'I blow shit up inside computers for a living, so you can enjoy your Hollywood movies just that little bit more'. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she works in Visual Effects -- one of those industries that would have died a horrible death if it hadn't been for foreign talent.
From here, for the next few years, it's a pretty standard tale of boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-go-travelling-around-the-world, boy-and-girl-move-to-South-America-for-a-year, boy-proposes-to-girl, girl-says-yes, girl-narrowly-avoids-turning-into-bridezilla, and so on and so forth.
We got married at the tail-end of 2012, and were then planning to return to the UK. By now, that little idea I came up with was running gangbusters, and my bonnie lass was ready for a change of career -- no longer wanting to work in special effects, she was showing her Silicon Valley roots by seeking work at a tech start-up.
But first, we have to get a Magical Piece of Paper from the Home Office, confirming that she is not one of them illegals. Of course, that would be easy, right? I am an EU citizen, she is married to an EU citizen; I have a job, we have a lovely flat, and we are married -- happy, and rosy as can be, right?
I'll just wait for a few seconds until you've stopped laughing at our naïveté.
Enter stage left, the incredible, hulking beast that is the Home Office. If I were to visualise the experience, I would imagine one of those incredible WWF wrestling entries, probably set to some in-your-face punk song by The Exploited, where, among explosions, strobe lighting, and smoke, a lanky, 6-ft, 150 lbs nerd enters the arena, in full confidence that despite their physical appearance, they have the full might of the Home Office and all the land's border patrol forces behind them.
Imagine at this point, if you will, that was-never-really-that-funny Little Britain sketch where the Computer Says No.
Under the particular piece of legislation which I was planning to bring that filthy-immigrant-wot-came-from-overseas into the UK, it should all be pretty straightforward. The logic ought to go a little something like this: As an European Economic Area (EEA) Citizen, the European Union has guaranteed you the right to move and reside freely anywhere within the EEA. (see Directive 2004/38/EC on the right to move and reside freely, if that's your thing). Being married to yours sincerely, my ball and chains should be able to enter the country and get an EEA Residence card. I'll skip all the boring legal stuff, but if you're feeling particularly masochistic, check out the rather fetching Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006, which deals with all the (surprisingly readable) legalise of what we're talking about here.
The fun part is that my lovely wife doesn't actually even need this piece of paper. In fact, on the UK Border Agency site, they eludiate "You do not need to obtain documents confirming your right of residence in the UK if you are a family member of an EEA national", but then, in a delightful display of dry wit and profound understatement, goes on to say that if you don't, you "may have difficulty proving that you are lawfully resident in the UK"; that it'd be a right royal pain in the arse to re-enter the UK if you go abroad, and that you "may find it difficult to obtain or change employment." So essentially, what they're saying is that you don't need this piece of paper, but if you don't, you're buggered six ways 'till Sunday.
So, being keen to be immigrants of the legal variety, we submit our EEA2 form, which means that -- by law -- the Home Office has to issue within six months. We send off our application, and we wait. Four months go by. Five months. Surely, we'll hear something soon? Six months go by. "Hey," we hear you ask. "What happens when the UK Border Agency breaks English Law, and takes longer than the legally prescribed six months to send out a residence permit?" Yeah, we don't know either, but if my very American wife has her way, she'd have sued them a long time ago. How's that for introducing some cultural diversity into the UK, colonies style. Or, "If they think they can get rid of me that easily," as she growled at the time, "They're fucking up the wrong tree."
And with that delightful mixed metaphor in the bank, our waiting continued.
Eventually, the Home Office did get back to us, rejecting our EEA2 application, because they had only received copies of my payslips, which they claimed was not sufficient evidence of me exercising my EU treaty rights to live in the UK.
Oh-oh. As far as we can, we run a paperless company -- the 'originals' of my payslips are PDF documents. How do they expect us to give them the originals? Is it somehow a better solution to open the files in a Hex editor, and print out the source code for the files? Should we have submitted the originals on an USB stick? What does 'original' even mean in a digital world where copies are indistinguishable from their originals?
More importantly: why, in the name of all that is holy, couldn't the Home Office have contacted us? The second they opened the envelope and the copies of the payslips tumbled out, they'd have been able to spot that something wasn’t quite “official” enough.
In a world where people were sensible, effective, and gave half a hoot about their jobs, the timeline ought to have been have been something like this: Minute 1: Open envelope. Minute 2: "Oh dear, something is wrong". Minute 5: e-mail us. Minute 10: I'll send them the 'original' PDFs of my payslips. Plus any additional documentation they need to “prove” I’m working. Issue resolved.
Instead, this takes more than six months, and they refuse our application.
After that, the true misery begins, of course. My lovely wife was offered a job in the meantime, but that part is now in limbo (even after we attempt to contact the Home Office and explain to them that there's nothing we'd love more than to start paying taxes to the UK government. PLEASE LET US PAY YOU OUR TAXES. No dice), and it looks like she may be turned down for the job, because they need someone to start earlier.
So, we start our long and arduous climb up the slippery pole that is the appeals process.
Receiving an EEA residence permit really is a formality: apparently it used to be possible to rock up at an office with a pair of passports, a marriage certificate, a couple of pay slips and a tenancy agreement, and they'd stamp the EEA residence card into your passport there and then. The whole process would take less than a day. As far as I can tell, the underpinning laws haven't changed, but the process has morphed from a 4-hour process to a 4,400 hour process. Yes, it now takes about a thousand times longer than only a couple of years ago.
I should at this point propose a minute of silence for all the trees that had to die in order for my lovely lass to be in the UK. To 'prove' that my payslips and all the other documents we had digitally are 'originals', I had to purchase a rubber stamp. "A rubber stamp?" I asked the lawyer. "Yes, a rubber stamp. It's only thirty quid or so. Buy one," he said. "But if it's only £30, and I can have a rubber stamp made of pretty much anything in the world, how does it prove that anything is official?" I wondered. "It's the home-office," he said. "Logic does not apply. Oh, and while you're at it, get some letter-headed paper, too."
So, we kill half a forest by way of a trusty if slightly battered Brother laser-printer. We create a few tonnes of carbon emissions in having the bank send me 12 months worth of bank statements which are all individually sent in separate envelopes. (In case you were wondering, it is pretty daunting to receive twelve envelopes from your bank all at once).
As we're putting our appeal together, my (now deeply disgruntled) wife has realised we never received our original wedding certificate in return. This, dear reader, is a problem, because some might argue that this piece of paper is Expensive and Important. She sends a letter to the UK Border Agency, asking for our marriage certificate back, and quickly, if you please.
In return, we receive the most insidious letter I've received in my life. "EO2 LNC21," as our case worker is known (god forbid we'd actually get a real name of the person who is deciding our fate) claims that the 'application was seen and decided by myself,' and that 'there was no marriage certificate in your application.'
If we ignore for a second that this case worker wasn't able to spell the name of their own agency correctly (unless we somehow sent our application to the wrong department, and the "UK Boarder Agency" is something to do with skate-, snow- or wakeboarding), he or she also mentions that "the application did not contain a covering letter stating the contents of the application," and that "the only record this office has that there may have been a marriage certificate included in this application is the application form." The absolutely incredible thing about the latter statement is that we definitely included both our marriage certificate and a cover letter confirming that we had included it. How can I be so sure? Well, because they returned it to us, along with our letter refusing the application.
In a way, you'd almost forgive the Home Office and the Border agency for their ineptness if it were an one-off -- but the biggest surprise in this adventure is how unsurprised everybody is about all of this. In fact, everybody we have spoken to (including the ever-so-delightful editor of this very website), has a cornucopia of horror stories. Everyone seems to accept it as a fact that the Home Office is about as useful as (but a lot less cute than) a blind baby sloth, and that any time you have to deal with them you should expect ineptitude, inefficiency, and a necessity to grow accustomed to an all-penetrating, seething anger that penetrates your frontal lobe for months on end.
A man more cynical than I would accuse the UK Border Agency of putting artificial hindrances in the way for people from the EU (and their family members), because they are trying to dissuade potential migrants from EEA countries as much as possible. Would that be legal? Absolutely not. Do they care? Well...If actions speak louder than words, then I'll leave you to judge for yourself.
It is very hard to explain exactly how powerless you feel when you're facing a huge government agency which doesn't appear to pay much attention to its own laws. Doubly so when what ought to be a simple formality becomes an unsurpassable wall that stands between the right-here-right-now, and being able to start a life in the UK as productive members of society.
We'd love to work. We'd love to start paying taxes. We'd love to be a shiny example of exactly the kind of immigrants you'd like to have in the country.
Now if only the Home Office would let us.
Haje Jan Kamps is a prolific photography blogger who has written a small stack of books about photography. He also launched the Triggertrap camera trigger and has been known to travel the world a bit. If you’re of the tweeting kind, try him on @Photocritic!
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