Language-testing spouses for visas is discriminatory

Making spouses take language tests for visas goes against the principle that family unity is central

You're in a bustling street market in Salvador, Brazil. You look up, and there she is. Your eyes meet, your heart skips a beat. It's love at first sight.

You are lucky enough to date, to marry and to have a child together. Unfortunately you happen to lose your job, and so you return to the UK to take up clerical work.

Fast-forward a few months to the autumn of 2010. You assume you can bring your wife and adorable one-year-old with you. There's one problem -- your wife grew up in the countryside in Maranhão, one of the poorest states in Brazil.

She lived on less than a dollar a day for most of her life. She has no formal education and cannot speak English. You're on a small salary. You already have to prove to the immigration authorities that you've got enough money to support and accommodate her, your child and yourself.

You struggle to scrape together the £1,000 or so needed for her English tuition and test fees. She studiously attempts to learn the language for eight months, but fails her test.

She retakes the exam several months later after yet more costly English classes, but fails again. It's been one and a half years and you've been living without your wife and child who still cannot join you. There is no end in sight.

This would be a perfectly ordinary example of how the coalition government's pre-English language tests for visas can be expected to impact upon those applying to join their British or settled spouses or partners.

Double jeopardy

The tests are officially justified in benign terms -- it's apparently all about "integration" and removing "cultural barriers".

Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP who appeared on The Politics Show over the weekend, was a little more upfront about the measures. Observing that the measures would lead to a 10 per cent reduction in applications, and therefore cut immigration numbers, he considered this to be a "good thing" and, indeed, one of two aims behind the measures. But however you look at these proposals they are open to serious objection.

Perhaps the ugliest aspect is the sheer discrimination and elitism that underpin it. The tests don't apply to spouses who cannot speak English from within the European Union.

For those to whom they do apply -- who happen to be drawn disproportionately from Asia, in particular south Asia -- it is very clear that the poor are most likely to suffer, as they are the least likely to be able to afford English lessons.

Given that family-based migration tends to be feminised, and that educational opportunities are gendered across the globe, it is highly likely that women will be disproportionately affected by all of this. Those with learning difficulties and mental health problems will also suffer.

The Netherlands recently introduced a similar scheme that has already been subject to international criticism by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The exemption there for "western states" was considered to have been discriminatory and inconsistent with international law.

But even from the point of view of efficacy in facilitating migrant integration, the measures are seriously lacking. First, how an earth can migrants who are prevented from coming to the country seriously be expected to integrate in the UK? The experience of the Netherlands shows any delay in family reunification/formation is likely to delay integration.

Further, as the proposals apply only to one small subsection of the migrant community in the UK, they are inherently limited in their reach, and therefore their ability to enhance integration is seriously compromised.

Moreover, these individuals are already subject to language and cultural testing at a more exacting level shortly after their arrival in the UK. Spousal testing in fact takes place within 24 months after arrival.

Disintegrated

If anything, these measures will in the long term hinder integration. They will only reinforce erroneous stereotypes held by some sections of the host community that migrants on the whole don't wish to learn the English language or be part of the UK. From the point of view of migrants, the discrimination and hardship that the measures will subject them to will delay the development of the sense of membership of a society that is a precondition for integration.

The experience of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is that most migrants do in fact learn the language and actually want the opportunity to do this but oversubscription for classes, and the costs of learning tend act as significant barriers.

A far more effective and proportionate way of addressing any deficiencies in the English-language skills of migrants would be to remove restrictions that prevent many migrants who arrive in the UK from learning the language at an earlier stage. This could be done through charging fees at more affordable home prices, rather than overseas rates, which tend to be prohibitive.

Further, the £50m the government proposes to spend on implementing this scheme could be better invested in expanding already oversubscribed English language classes.

This would give all immigrants -- and all others with less sophisticated written and spoken English skills to boot -- the opportunity to improve.

Adopting such an approach to language learning, integration and immigration policy would also reflect international law and the principles that underpin it.

Indeed, international consensus on the centrality of family unity to human dignity crystallised as early as 1948 with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Dog-whistle politics offers no justification to depart from these obligations or the long-cherished principles on which they are based.

Hina Majid is director of policy at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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