The Britons leaving the UK to get their relatives in


The Briton who married an American and moved to France to get into the UK

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British citizens are bypassing immigration regulations to get their relatives into the UK, using a technicality that means that if they work in another European country for three months, they can be considered under EU rather than British law on their return. Is this cheating the system or just getting past unfair rules?

Sarah Pitard is a screenwriter from Chicago who had been living in the UK for four years on student visas when she married actor Chris Hall from Swindon, in December 2012.

When the couple applied for their marriage visa the UK Border Agency returned their form saying they had not enclosed payment details. The couple maintain that these details had been included, but by that time it was too late for them to re-apply as Sarah's existing visa was about to expire.

"Our visa was refused and when I calculated how many days I was allowed to stay in the UK it turned out we had 48 hours to leave the country, otherwise I would have been banned for 10 years.

Start Quote

Chris Hall and Sarah Pitard

If it is a cheat then we will cheat so that we can stay together for the rest of our lives”

End Quote Chris Hall, with his US wife Sarah Pitard

"I called Chris who had just left for a big theatre tour, and I said 'You gotta come back - meet me at St. Pancras'," Pitard recalls. "And we just shot out on the Eurostar and landed in Paris. I had never even been to France."

Under UK law, Hall was only able to bring his wife, a non-European Economic Area (EEA) citizen, in to Britain if he met the £18,600-a-year base earnings requirement.

But UKBA would not count some of his income as it comes from freelance acting work. So despite being married to a British citizen, Pitard was not allowed back in to the country.

A friend, though, knew of another way of getting a spouse in to the country.

The method they went on to pursue is known as the Surinder Singh route, named after an historic court case. It involves leaving the UK and working in the EEA for about three months.

Surinder Singh route

By exercising your rights under European freedom of movement, your status as a European citizen takes priority over your status as a UK citizen, and when you return to the UK you are allowed to bring your Non-EEA spouse without having to meet the £18,600 minimum earnings requirement which applies to Britons.

In simple terms, EEA citizens have stronger migration rights than UK citizens, since they can bring in family members from outside Europe in this way.

"My friend said it's not publicised - it's really hard to find on the UKBA website, you pretty much have to know about it in order to find it," Sarah tells me. "They don't make it easy because they don't really want anyone to know about it."

It is therefore easier for someone from France or Germany living in the UK to bring in their Indian or American partner or relative, and each year around 20,000 non-European family members come into the UK this way.

Sonel Mehta, of Reading, is currently living and working in Dublin in order to bring her parents across from Australia. They were blocked from moving to the UK by new rules on dependent relatives introduced in July 2012.

"It's the only route that's open to us and I think it's left open because the government can't close it," Metha says.

European Economic Area In migration terms EEA citizens have stronger rights than UK citizens

Although she knows the route is completely legitimate, she is expecting trouble when she arrives in the UK with her parents and tells the Border Agency official that she is using the Surinder Singh route.

"It will be clear that my parents are coming to settle in the UK. I'm absolutely expecting questions. I'm expecting the immigration officers to deny my right to be able to do that, but I'll have all the evidence with me to show that I have exercised my treaty rights in Ireland," Metha explains. "And paperwork printed out from the UKBA website which says that this route is something that British citizens can avail of."

Guy Taylor, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says that as other immigration options are closed off an increasing number of people are using the Surinder Singh route.

"One person I spoke to yesterday is working in an arcade in the south of Germany with his Russian wife," Taylor says.

"There are people who are working in Portugal, Spain, France. A lot of people going to Dublin - obviously because of the language.

"It's hard to estimate exactly how many people are doing this because so many don't declare they're going. There are Facebook groups about people trying to share flats and actually co-ordinating on this."

But he added that a whole new group of people are now falling foul of immigration rules.

"For the first time, we're seeing immigration rules hitting white British people and there's a lot of anger about that because this is an infringement on British people's rights, not just about immigrants."

But David Goodhart, director of think-tank Demos and author of The British Dream, a book about post-war immigration, believes the Surinder Singh route should be closed.

"I would regard that as a loophole. When different European countries are trying to place restrictions on the number of people coming from outside Europe, it seems bizarre that those people who are not British citizens find it easier to bring people in from outside the EU than British citizens," he says.

"To have rules about controlling people coming into the country from outside Europe, just made fun of by a European regulation - it should be stopped."

Watch the Newsnight film in full here

The Immigration Minister Mark Harper declined to be interviewed for BBC Asian Network/Newsnight's report and instead issued a statement:

"The EEA family permit is not a 'loophole'. It reflects the current requirements of EU law and would not apply if someone went abroad to a member state for a short time just in order to circumvent the immigration rules. An application will be refused if it cannot be proved the British citizen was genuinely engaged in employment."

This somewhat contradicts the UKBA website which says that it does not matter if the only reason a British national goes to another member state is to exercise an economic Treaty right so that they can come back to the UK with their family members.

Those using the route argue they have been forced into a corner. In Paris, Chris Hall says he is not in the least ashamed.

"We're doing this because we have no other options. So we're going to go ahead with it and if it is a cheat then we will cheat so that we can stay together for the rest of our lives."

Listen to Catrin Nye's documentary at 17:00 BST on the BBC Asian Network and see the film at 22:30 BST on Newsnight on BBC Two, both on Tuesday 25 June 2013.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Well there's surprise, HM Government overlooking the Tax Paying BRITISH citizens and allowing all and sundry in, maybe if we stopped giving aid out like confetti and use that money to ensure our Citizens are properly cared for folk like me won't be anxiously waiting for Independence and the get out of Europe drive. As per usual European Law trumps British Law, and we won the War!!!!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    The new visa laws are typical of how this government picks on blameless individuals and make their lives impossible just to reach arbitrarily defined targets: this doesn't tackle the real immigration issue. The visa changes prevent me from returning to the UK because it would unfairly split me and my wife of 5 years up. The Surinder Singh route is a possible lifeline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    A friend, though, knew of another way of getting a spouse in to the country.

    Whats that then, get a job as an MPs nanny or houskeeper or maybe a secretary

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Geee thanks BBC for telling everyone how to get into the UK. Really doing the country a favour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The UK gov is maintaining a law that strips 50% or so of it's own citizens rights that it defends for the rest of its' population, and people's reaction is to blame the EU?

    It is the UK that is prohibiting people's freedom, not the EU.
    Try using yer brains once in a while.

  • Comment number 58.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Why is it unreasonable to expect someone coming in to this country to either be capable of supporting themselves or to be partnered with somebody that is capable of providing them with that financial support? It's not xenophobia or bigotry, it's simple economics; this country cannot afford further burdens at present.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    This is not a loophole. It has been going on for 20 years and most immigration lawyers like myself are familiarize with the ruling of Singh. Why should a BC gets less than an EU national. A BC can bring bring her/his spouse here if spouse cannot pass english test whereas an EN national can bring his grandparents, parents, spouse, children and grandchildren as long as he works here. Fair?

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    If foreigners dont have full means of supporting themselves and their family, then they should not be allowed entry to this country. end of.
    Tax payers have enough to support and its about time this silly government got wise
    The BBC should know better than advertise the loophole,
    Roll on the opt out vote, we dont need Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    The whole concept of minimum annual earning is unfounded because UKBA can easily exclude foreign spouse of British from benefits. As an example I will be finishing my PhD and obviously I am going to get a job after I am done but now I can’t apply for marriage visa because we don’t meet minimum salary requirement. When I am done with my studies I have to get separated with my wife .

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    why are ppl saying they should move back to the non eea country , if a british citizen wants to bring their non EU spouse they should have every right to. all these laws were created to stop non white ppl but they don't realise it does effect white ppl too, this is institutional racism and must be stopped. immigration laws are draconian to british families. love will overcome any obstacles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The Immigration Law as it now stands is a flagrant breach of Human Rights. A husband or wife have every right to live together and no country should have the ability to separate them from being together or to break up families.

    It is an unjust law and should be immediately rescinded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    £18600 it is not a lot to ask. How many people merry without any income and then immediately want benefits . It is a little protection. proof that people think seriously about family, that one part ready to support family, have kids and so on. It is pity that BBS shows how to avoid. Next, please show how to avoid taxes and criminal offences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    To those who are anti-immigration: You have no influence over what country you are born in. You should not be more entitled to anything because of chance. If lady luck had not been so kind to you and you were born in a poorer country, would you still see it as so evil to want the same opportunities in life that the UK offers people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    As with many of our laws this appears to be another mess.

    We obviously want to stop abuse of the system whilst allowing 'genuine' couples to live together. How about we say that spouses can enter the UK but they are not eligible for 'benefits' until they (or their spouse) have paid sufficient in tax / ni etc for them to be on a par with those who have worked here since 16/18?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    27 "This government is heartless and is just splitting up families" - nope the taxpayer is sick of footing the bill for the world, we have no duty to support your son. Would have hoped he'd have the dignity and self respect to look after himself and his wife. . Oooh, look, two first Ed's Pick are emotive handwrings about the "nasty" govt protecting taxpayers - What a Surprise!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    22. pearl of the orient, so, according to you if a UK citizen is not earning enough the Government is entitled to deny them either the right to marry whomever they want, or the right to live in their own country, right?

    Now *that* would be 'equality' truly redefined! We want it, but not for the poor!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The reason for this situation stems from the selfish people who marry just to gain access to the UK, this forces the government to create, what look like unreasonable, rules being made to which the innocent have to abide by. Like the asylum problem, almost anyone entering illegally will claim asylum when in fact they are not asylum seekers and cause problems for the few genuine asylum seekers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Good to see that some commenters think that the penalty for the crime of falling in love with a foreigner should be a choice of compulsory exile from your home country or compulsory separation from your partner.

    I wouldn't think of taking to a comments thread to suggest that your freely chosen private relationships should be subject to this treatment, so think before opening your bigoted mouths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Best way to reduce immigration is to remove the reasons to come know like not helping destroy their countries of origin (Iraq,Syria etc). We could also support clean economic governance rather than support corrupt govs through bribes, sorry, "aid" that we know gets abused rather than used. Forgiving debt and refusing to give more would lift most countries out of poverty.


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