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As an Albanian, I know first-hand the cruelty and contempt of UK immigration

Lea Ypi has suppressed the worst things about being an immigrant in this country. But the government’s anti-Albanian rhetoric brought it back.

By Lea Ypi

I was recently asked why so many Albanian men want to cross the Channel. “Why come to the UK illegally when they can easily get a visa?” my interviewer wanted to know. I had to smile. My brother has never been able to visit me in the 14 years I have lived here. He has never seen the road where I live, or the school my children go to. He never appealed the initial decision to reject his visa, and he did not apply a second time, because he knows, as everyone does, that if you are a young Albanian man of working age, you are almost certain to be denied entry.

I have never shared my immigration stories. I did not think there was anything uniquely terrible about them – they were just the usual misfortunes that any immigrant to the United Kingdom is likely to encounter.

There was the time I was almost deported because there were no local appointments to apply for further leave to remain; I had to travel with my baby from London to a 9am immigration interview in Glasgow.

[See also: A crisis of the social contract: why we must transform our democracy]

There was the time I had to reschedule my politics lectures at the London School of Economics in order to list the contents of my bag to an immigration official, as a way of proving my proficiency in English (apparently, it was necessary to focus on my bag to avoid personal stories of war or violence). The time I had to find the first romantic emails exchanged with my English husband to prove that our relationship wasn’t fake. The time my British citizenship application (which cost several thousand pounds) was rejected because of a mistake in a document that had been sent through a council office that was created to ensure no mistakes were made (that, too, had cost a few quid).

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I tend to forget all these things, but they came back to me when I heard the Home Secretary refer to Albanians as “criminals” last month, and remembered that, yes, my brother had been that once, as had I, as had my mother.

On 11 January 2016, I was supposed to give birth to my second child. I remember the date because the delivery was to be by planned Caesarean. I also remember it because the date had been established after careful consideration of when, exactly, my mother was likely to arrive in the UK. Her two-year visa, with which she had been able to visit before, would expire a week after the baby’s due date. We had successfully applied for visas in the past, and hoped she would be approved for a new one, to avoid overstaying on the old.

My mother does not like the UK. She tends to visit only if I insist that I need help. Her English is good enough for grocery shopping and picking up children, but it does not allow her to do the things she enjoys in Tirana: to chat with neighbours over spontaneous coffee, or debate politics with shopkeepers. (I have yet to find the courage to explain that being fluent in English is unlikely to change anything on these fronts.)

She sniffs at our local area: there are too many pawn and betting shops, and too many KFCs (Colonel Sanders reminds her of Ho Chi Minh). Nor does she approve of the weather: she is persuaded that her rheumatism deteriorates with British humidity – though when I urge her to see a GP she refuses, because “they’ll tell you to buy paracetamol”. (During Brexit, she would have been a very effective means of persuading the British electorate that, far from trying to exploit the NHS, eastern Europeans engage with it rather reluctantly.)

Still, without those hesitant visits from my mother, I would have struggled. I am often asked how I manage to balance work and family life: the answer is that I don’t. We live in a permanent state of emergency occasionally alleviated by the decisive interventions of two grandmothers: the Welsh and the Albanian.

My mother had been indispensable after the birth of my first child, first persuading me that it was not a moral failure to formula-feed a newborn, then following me around the UK while I gave lectures through the breastfeeding months. She is of a generation who came of age under such communist slogans as “We must fight personal comfort”, and “Work is honour and glory”. I know I won’t get much sympathy from her if a plea for help is presented in sentimental terms: after the first birth, she had no time for my post-natal blues. But if I have an extremely practical request – ideally one involving higher-order duties which she must enable me to carry out – she springs into action. Solidarity comes not in the form of words of empathy but with a decisive to-do list, categorical imperatives prescribed in quasi-military fashion .

The baby arrived two weeks early. I have suppressed all memory of the delivery but I do recall staring down at one point and screaming in horror.

“You’ll be fine,” the doctor reassured me. “But it’s a fourth-degree tear – it might take a little longer to heal.”

“How many stitches?” I asked.

“Twenty-seven,” she replied. “But the baby is perfectly healthy.”

“The baby is perfectly healthy,” was also the first thing I said to my mother when I called her.

“But I can’t move – it’s too painful to walk to the bathroom.”

“You’ll be fine,” she said, in the same tone as the doctor, “I’ll be there soon.”

But a few days later, a letter entitled “Refusal of a Visit Visa” arrived, bearing the stamp of “UK Visas & Immigration”, sent from “Post Reference: Warsaw”, and signed “Entry Clearance Officer”. The letter started by acknowledging that citizen Vjollca Ypi had received a number of visas in the past, and that when she had applied for a new one, the old was still valid.

But I had made the mistake of mentioning in the application that I wanted my mother to come because I was likely to need help after giving birth. This, the letter explained, was highly concerning.

“In your visa application form, it is stated that the main purpose of your visit is to stay at your daughter’s house and to help her take care of your new grandson and to help her take care of the household chores… Your circumstances have failed to satisfy me that your intentions are those of a genuine visitor… I am not satisfied that you have demonstrated a need to leave the UK following your proposed visit… I am not satisfied you are genuinely seeking entry for a purpose that is permitted by the visitor routes or that you will leave the UK at the end of your visit. I am also not satisfied you will not live in the UK for extended periods through frequent or successive visits or that you will not make the UK your main home… Given the fact that I am not satisfied as to your intentions, I am not satisfied that you can meet your UK living costs. I am not satisfied therefore that you have sufficient funds to cover all reasonable costs in relation to your visit without working or accessing public funds.”

[See also: Tens of thousands shut out of work by Home Office visa renewal delays]

A separate section of the letter, entitled “Future Applications” clarified that further requests would be considered on their merit, but were likely to be refused. It concluded by emphasising that “in relation to this decision, there is no right of appeal or right to administrative review”.

From the bed in which I nursed my newborn, I called my mother, swallowing the tears. “They do it all the time,” she said, in her usual matter-of-fact tone. People from former communist countries often use the impersonal “they” when referring to the arbitrary power of bureaucratic authorities to which they have become accustomed.

Mizerje,” she added, an adjective that is hard to translate – something between evil and misery, a word that captures both a judgement of moral wretchedness and submission to a cursed fate.

“I am going to appeal,” I said. For the first time, she was out of practical advice.

“It won’t help,” she said.

“It won’t help,” said the immigration lawyer to whom I wrote, after congratulating me on the birth and asking if I was getting any sleep. She explained that most visitor visas are refused when they fail to convince entry clearance officers that applicants intend to leave.

“Looking after grandchildren,” she said, “is always one that you have to be careful about.” I did not have a right of appeal, “except on human rights grounds”, which did not apply – but she suggested a judicial review: I would have to show that the decision was “irrational or illegal”, given the evidence of my mother’s previous visits. “However”, she concluded, “this is very costly and time-consuming, and they could just refuse by wording it better. I am sorry not to have better news.”

The UK’s immigration system does not find criminals – it creates them. It projects criminal intent well before any criminal act has occurred. But it is hard to explain any of this to someone who has not experienced first-hand the cruelty, the contempt, the moral arbitrariness of the immigration authorities.

And even those who have experienced it, tend to forget. Degradation, like the trauma of giving birth, is best dealt with by repressing it. I had repressed it too, until the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, decried the “invasion on our southern coast”, and an anti-Albanian rhetoric entered mainstream politics.

The interviewer who recently told me that Albanian men could “easily” get a UK visa has clearly never been inside a visa office. They have never seen the queues, the tense expressions on the faces of men, women and children, the elderly people on walking sticks as they stand before immigration officers, as if standing before God on Judgement Day. They have never seen them shake, their voices trembling as they answer invasive questions about their lives, their finances, their relationships. They have never seen the tears in their eyes when a folder is slipped under a glass window or a letter reaches them, informing them that they have been denied entry.

All of these people, without exception, will have answered “Yes” to the question on the visa form that asks: “Do you consider yourself to be a person of good character?” So when their applications are rejected, what is the state saying about that answer? That they are not to be believed, that their intentions are transgressive, that they will be a social burden.

Still, we were lucky. A few months after the birth, I was able to meet my family in Brussels. Unlike many other Albanians, we could afford the trip and the hotel, and were able to travel freely within the Schengen area (others, including Kosovars, can’t).

Two years later, my mother reapplied for her visa. This time we invited her as a tourist, explaining in our letter that she was a wealthy Albanian landowner, who would enjoy exploring the country, visiting Wales and shopping at Harrods. We made no mention of her English grandchildren, her working daughter, or any other family needs. My mother’s visa was granted for five years.

Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at the LSE. Her book “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History” (Allen Lane) won this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. This article was originally published on 7 December.

[See also: Leader: Why we need honesty on migration]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special