Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Victoria Girsa, co-founder of Portsmouth based GBS UK Immigration Ltd a team of accredited immigration advisors. In part two of a two part series, Victoria explains how Covid-19 has impacted the families of her clients, the challenges her clients face in the immigration system and the changes she would like to see in the system. Read part I here.
Interview transcribed by Peta Sampson.
Paris: What impact has the pandemic had on the families you work with, have you found there are specific impacts on the children?
Victoria: The main impact of the pandemic is on families that are split because of the application process; it obviously affects children of the family too. Children grow up so fast and if one of the parents is separated from the rest of the family they are losing out on this precious time with the child.
We also have a few pregnant clients affected by the delay caused by the pandemic. One of my clients has an application pending with the Home Office (usually takes 8 weeks) which has been outstanding for over four months now. The NHS overseas visitors department sent her a letter to say that her visa expired in May 2020 and unless she produces a new Biometric Residence Permit (BRP), a visa in a form of a card, she will be liable for the NHS charges for giving birth to her child. Even a straightforward birth costs in the region of £10,000. It adds to the frustration and anxiety of our client because even though she is entitled to free NHS treatment, it might be the case that she will end up with an invoice that we will have to argue she should not be paying because she submitted her extension of visa application on time.
What do you think are the main challenges facing migrant families trying to work through the UK’s immigration system and how would you like to see it improved?
The first challenge that I can mention is the Home Office fees, which are very high. Currently, for a spouse visa application process, together with citizenship, the applicant is looking at paying £8,475 even before adding the legal fees. Each dependent on the application needs to pay fees too. We have a few families with numerous children, and they have to borrow money to be able to fund the visa associated fees for the entire family. Some sources claim that the Home Office is making 800% profit on all the applications. There is also some application associated costs of £19.20 for biometrics and £69.99 (the enhanced center cheapest appointment fee) which for a family of few children quickly accumulates into a substantial extra cost.
Then there is the NHS surcharge. It is a fee payable for having access to the NHS at £400 per year and must be paid in one go when lodging the online application. For a visa which is valid for 2.5 years an applicant needs to pay £1,000 in NHS surcharge. It is not possible to ‘opt out’ of it by arranging private medical insurance. Many clients are very frustrated and sad about that – even though they are married to British Citizens or work themselves and contribute to the system by paying tax and National Insurance contributions, they still have to pay the NHS surcharge. At first it was £200 per year and now it doubled to £400 per year. The Government is looking at putting it up even further as of October 2020, the NHS surcharge will be £624 per year, which adds up to an increase in fees by £560 for a single spouse visa applicant.
The bar for many applicants is the financial requirement of an income of at least £18,600. There are many pensioners on the UK State Pension who would not meet that requirement unless they can add their partner’s pension or have substantial cash savings. Some clients can demonstrate they are meeting the requirements when they apply for entry clearance and are placed on the 5-year route to settlement but then during the first 2.5 years in the UK the sponsor can lose their job and no longer meet the requirements, the Home Office will then place them on the 10-year route to settlement which means they will have to complete at least another 7.5 years to qualify for indefinite leave to remain, paying the fees and the NHS surcharge each time they apply.
Applicants are precluded from mixing immigration categories to settle in the UK quicker. For example, if someone is here as a spouse of a British Citizen on a 5-year route to settlement and they spend the first 4 years as a spouse, if the relationship breaks down but they have a child together, that person can switch into the Parent route allowing them to remain in the UK to care of the child or to have access to the child. However, after they have switched categories, they have to complete yet another 5 years in the Parent route category before they can qualify for settlement. If there could be a provision allowing to mix categories that would be amazing because then a migrant completing 5 years of legal residency could settle and apply for indefinite leave to remain.
Some aspects of the English language requirement must be changed, for example, if a migrant child is studying here and went through the entire educational system in the UK, when they reach the age of 18, they still have to pass the English language test and the Life in the UK test, which I think is nonsense as they clearly know English.
What would you ask local policy and decision makers in terms of supporting clients moving forward?
With regards to the Covid-19 pandemic response, knowing how harsh the Home Office can be at times, I think they have done well during the pandemic. There were and continue to be some concessions in place to allow stranded visitors to remain in the UK until the end of July 2020 without it affecting their immigration history. The ‘grace period’ has now been extended until the end of August. Applicants were also allowed to lodge their applications from within the UK when normally they must leave the UK to apply for entry clearance.
Currently, our clients have to travel to Southampton, Croydon or Brighton to enroll their biometrics. They have to take a day off and travel there which adds to the overall cost of the application process. I think it would be beneficial if we had a biometric enrollment center here in Portsmouth.
Want to get involved?
I would like to interview local migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Portsmouth and the organisations and groups who support them. If you would like to share your experiences, or represent a group or organisation like this, please get in touch with me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.