Yesterday’s Sunday Times report that “Commonwealth soldiers don’t earn enough to bring families with them” will come as no surprise to immigration practitioners confronted on a daily basis with British citizen or settled clients who can barely meet the minimum income requirement.
My experience of representing over a dozen Commonwealth veterans is that those recruited between 2005 and 2013 started at a basic salary of about £16,000. That figure, according to the Times, has now risen to £18,600, enabling a new recruit to sponsor a spouse or partner under the Immigration Rules.
But what if they have children? As Gabriella Bettiga explains in her recent Free Movement article on the subject, the salary threshold rises for each additional child. This leaves those earning the basic armed forces salary unable to sponsor children.
Unless a soldier is given permission to moonlight for a second income or their spouse joins them in the UK to earn a joint income that meets the prescribed financial requirements, these families will be indefinitely separated. A separation of at least six months would be inevitable due to the need to demonstrate six months’ continuous earnings at the minimum level.
Any exemptions to the rules require extremely high “exceptional” thresholds to be met.
The financial requirements are undeniably harsh and have the ongoing tragic impact of separating families.
Ongoing and historical injustices
My previous article on this topic highlighted the historical injustices that many Commonwealth veterans face following discharge from the armed forces. There has been entrenched, underlying discrimination against foreign national armed forces personnel. At times, the racial discrimination is shockingly stark — as in the case of Inoke Momonakaya, a Fijian soldier who reportedly won £490,000 in compensation from the Ministry of Defence over a sustained campaign of racism. This included being ordered to dress up as a Taliban insurgent for an army training video along with five other Fijians from his unit and having a black “troll” doll named after him by a racist sergeant-major.
The lack of regard shown by the Ministry of Defence towards Commonwealth recruits and veterans is staggering — and difficult to square with the Ministry’s continued reliance on recruitment of Commonwealth armed forces personnel. As recently as November 2018, the government announced an increase in Commonwealth recruits to 1,350 per year over a timeframe of several years, whilst paying tribute to the “long-held links Britain’s military has with the Commonwealth countries, where recruits from across the globe have bravely served in a varied of roles, in many conflicts”.
Moral obligation to members of the forces and their family
The Army Families Federation says that Commonwealth applicants between 2016 and 2018 had not been given details about the relevant family reunification rules before enlisting, only to find themselves locked into four year minimum contracts. If this is the case, then it is nothing short of dishonest and a breach of legitimate expectation.
The core justification for their exemption from the minimum income rule lies in the Armed Forces Covenant, which pledges no-one should be disadvantaged by their service, and that in some cases special treatment might be appropriate. It notes that families play a vital role in supporting the operational effectiveness of the armed forces. In return, the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the forces and their family who deserve respect, support and fair treatment.
In the spirit of the Armed Forces Covenant, the right to serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces should come with the right to family life and the right to remain upon completion of the minimum length of service — and not at a hefty cost that is barely affordable by those who serve in HM Forces.
Outrageous immigration fees charged to foreign soldiers
The minimum income requirement is not the only barrier that the immigration system sets up. Even if Commonwealth recruits do earn enough to qualify for a family visa, they still have to pay for it. The cost of a non-settlement entry visa is 706 USD (around £550) for dependents of exempt international forces applying under Appendix Armed Forces of the Immigration Rules. After five years continuous residence in the UK under this category, the serving soldier and family members would be eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain for which the fee is currently £2,389. For a family of four the cost would be just shy of £10,000.
In April 2018, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced that all fees would be waived for the Windrush generation citizens to apply for settlement.
The following month, her successor Sajid Javid waived the £2,389 fee for Afghan interpreters who served for British troops, justifying this by acknowledging that: “the local Afghan interpreters worked in dangerous and challenging situations, regularly putting their lives at risk”.
The Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was quoted to have been
…thrilled that the Home Office has agreed that we should waive the fees for the loyal and brave interpreters who served this country by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our armed forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
They have always delivered for us, so it is important that we deliver for them…
What justification is there for not extending the same fee waivers to Commonwealth recruits and veterans who have also stood shoulder to shoulder with their British fellow soldiers, putting their lives at risk for this country?