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24 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:04pm

Freezing sheds and vanishing documents – why immigrants like us are quitting the UK

The UK visa authority was a hostile, incomprehensible, unpleasant, stressful entity to deal with. That is its baseline mode. 

By Foz Meadows

My husband and I first moved to the UK in January 2011. He’d been given a position at the University of St Andrews – however, because the Tory-led coalition government had slashed the number of visas any university could sponsor, he wasn’t able to be sponsored for the job he’d been hired to do.

Fortunately for us, Australian natives, my maternal grandfather was born in the UK, which meant I was eligible for an ancestry visa. This was a much more expensive visa than a sponsored one would’ve been, but it came with greater protections and my husband could work as my spouse.

Of course, in visa-language, “spouse” is seemingly code for “woman who does not work”, so there was no designated space on my husband’s spousal visa application to include his employment offer – we had to include those details in the “extra information” section and hope they noticed. The whole process was expensive, labyrinthine and nerve-wracking, but in the end, we got to the UK.

Fast forward three years: we moved from St Andrews to Bristol, where our son was born in 2014. Because the UK has no jus soli, he had – and has – no British citizenship, which meant we had to apply to have him recognised as Australian by descent. He also needed a passport. As part of this process, the three of us had to travel to a far-distant visa authority office, which was basically a warehouse.

We were there for about seven hours.

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Fun fact about visa authority offices: even though it’s legally required for children and babies to attend under various circumstances, they contain absolutely zero provisions for people attending with small children. There were no baby changing tables, and we were only able to get hot water to make my son’s formula by asking to use the employee kitchen. Even then, the guards wouldn’t let us in there; they brought us the water, with several frowning in disapproval, as though we had any say in being there with him. (For the record, I’ll note that consulates are similarly restrictive about the needs of babies, but at least they have the excuse of actual security risks to consider and try to run smoothly and on time to compensate for it. The UK visa authority? Not so much.)

Fast forward again to 2015: we were back in Scotland – in Aberdeen, this time – and considering permanent residency. This meant taking the UK citizenship test. The relevant office in Aberdeen had been closed, so after pre-paying online, we had to take a five-hour round trip to the one in Dundee.

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We arrived at what was basically a fancy shed. Almost the entire space was a single, open, multi-level space sectioned into a maze by office dividers. Outside, it was freezing cold, and like many other applicants, we had our toddler with us. But when we entered together, we were firmly told that babies weren’t allowed inside. This was justified to us on the basis of the building’s construction: because of the lack of walls between the testing and waiting areas, they didn’t want the noise of children to distract the test-takers. Anyone with a small child had to wait with them outside

In Scotland. In winter.

If an adult showed up alone with a baby? They would’ve been turned away. Parents who came in pairs had to take turns with their kid outside, where there was no shelter and no place to sit. In four degrees Celsius, I saw a frozen woman cradling a baby in her arms as she paced in the wind. Another wheeled a pram back and forth, while a couple on the phone huddled with a toddler under an awning. My husband and I were lucky by comparison: we’d driven there, so I could sit in the car with our son while he went in to test first.

Fifteen minutes passed. My husband came back, visibly shaking, and told me he hadn’t been allowed to even sit the test. Why? Because on the dropdown form he’d filled out online, he’d accidentally clicked that he was bringing an ID card instead of his passport. His passport was still a valid form of ID to sit the test, but because it wasn’t the ID form he’d chosen online, they refused him.

Next, it was my turn. At that time, my passport was still in my maiden name, because I’d got it just in advance of our wedding in order to go on our overseas honeymoon in 2007. This had posed no issue when getting my visa to enter the UK, or in using my married name once there, so I brought my original marriage certificate along for surety, as all my other supporting UK documents – our lease, bank and utility statements, work contracts – referred to me by my married name. But documentation that had been sufficient to get me into the country was deemed insufficient to sit the citizenship test. Oh, no. For that, I was told, only British marriage certificates could be accepted. Never mind that I was from a Commonwealth country: like my husband, I was deemed to have insufficient ID and turned away.

Upset and frustrated, I asked if I could speak to a supervisor. No, I was told: there wasn’t anyone higher around than the woman I was dealing with. Could I call the relevant office for help? No, it was Saturday, and the office was closed. We had no choice but to turn around and drive right back home.

Feeling increasingly unwelcome in the UK, we decided to move on – but first, we still needed to renew our expiring visas. As they were ancestry visas, this meant a) paying around £2,000 for the three of us; and b) sending in huge quantities of original ID documents.

These documents included: all our passports, original marriage certificate, all our original birth certificates, my mother’s original birth certificate, my grandfather’s original long-form birth certificate, bank and utility statements, original work contracts – everything. By the time we came to send this all off in late November 2015, my husband had a job offer back in Australia, and we were planning to leave the UK in April. We only needed the visas for five months. All that decided, we sent our stuff off, and we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

We could see from our bank statements that the UK visa authority had taken the £2,000-odd pounds processing fee from us, but 2016 rolled around and we still hadn’t heard anything.

Then, in late January, we received a letter telling us that our application and all our documents had been lost. Having opened our application at their first processing centre, the visa authority apparently took our money, made no other record of our application, and then sent our documents on to their other processing centre via the Royal Mail, whose post depot had then flooded. Ours was not the only application thus affected. In fact, we were later told by the Australian consulate, screw-ups of this nature are common. Indeed, the UK visa authority is apparently known by other consulates for being careless with documents, slow, and generally incompetent.

As for where this left us, we needed new passports as soon as possible, in order to leave the country as planned. But to get those new passports, we needed supporting documentation to give our own consulate, and all those documents were also lost. My husband, at least, still had his drivers’ licence, but my passport was my only photo ID, which meant we had to get my mother, back in Australia, to pay for a new copy of my birth certificate and send it over to us. We then had to organise a two-day trip from Aberdeen to London (where the consulate is) to get our new passports in an expedited, not-reliant-on-the-Royal-Mail fashion. This cost us another £2,000 or so, and on top of everything else, it killed our savings.

Though the UK visa authority eventually refunded us for the application they couldn’t process and returned our “lost” documents (which evidently weren’t destroyed by water after all), this didn’t happen until late 2016, when we were already back in Australia. We never recovered or were compensated for the additional £2,000 we spent having to sort things out – and by that time, we were too exhausted to even contemplate asking for compensation from another country. Because of its own error, the UK visa authority now flags our passports whenever we enter the UK, because for some reason, its system requires constant re-explanation of what happened.

The entire five years we lived in the UK – as well-off, white, English-speaking, Commonwealth citizens – the UK visa authority was a hostile, incomprehensible, unpleasant, stressful entity to deal with. That, in other words, is its baseline mode. It is profoundly more vile to anyone less privileged, as the recent Windrush horror stories, the breakups of international families, and the deportations of people of colour have shown.

It’s a cold, hard fact that dealing with the UK visa authority trashed both my husband’s and my mental health, and left us in a financial hole. Without the support of solvent, caring family members, we would never have climbed out of it. Years later, we’re still recovering: while doing the admin for our recent move to the US, our family couldn’t understand why my husband and I were experiencing nightmares and anxiety attacks about the visa application process.

How an entity so comprehensively dedicated to intransigence and bureaucratic pettifogging as the UK visa authority can possibly hope to deal with the hugely expanded workload necessitated by any form of Brexit is beyond me. It simply won’t cope. In all respects, the UK visa authority almost perfectly fits the description that Douglas Adams famously gave to his Vogons: “Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous.” I say almost, because these days, yeah, they actually are evil, too.

The marriage of xenophobia and bureaucratic incompetence is one of the ugliest in the modern world, and that’s saying something. The UK isn’t alone in perpetuating this particular evil, so let it be a lesson to everyone on a similar path to turn back now.

As anyone who has ever played a role-playing game should know, the adherents of a lawfully evil system can kill you just as quickly as their chaotic brethren: the key difference being that, like the Vogons, they’ll do it with a sword made of triplicate paperwork and then fine your corpse for bleeding.

A Home Office spokesperson said in response to this article: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with UK immigration rules.”