UK named most expensive country for skilled migration

Foreign workers hit by sharp rise in income threshold for partner visa as Britain tries to control numbers

Caroline Coombs, executive director of Reunite Families UK, with her husband and child. Photo: Caroline Coombs
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Visas have become a multibillion pound revenue stream for the UK as the cost of migrating to the country has increased significantly in recent years, amid a changing system of rules that requires applicants to prove higher earnings.

A skilled worker with a partner and two children faces fees of £41,500 ($52,640) for the family to complete the path to citizenship, making Britain the most expensive country in the world for such migrants, a report shows.

A study by the Migration Observatory, part of the University of Oxford, reveals that fees have been increasing over the past two decades, even adjusted for inflation. These fees now generate £2.2 billion in income for the Home Office.

This week, the minimum income threshold for a UK resident to be able to bring their spouse to the country is set to rise from £18,600 to £29,000, and will increase to £38,700 next spring.

The change is part of a package of measures the government hopes will cut net migration by about 300,000.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced criticism last year when it was announced that net migration reached a record 745,000, despite the fact that reducing this number was a key driver of Brexit.

The Migration Observatory has said the new income requirement, which comes into force on Thursday, is out of reach for about half of the population in Britain, where the average annual salary is about £29,000.

The founder of a campaign group that supports people in the UK who are fighting to be reunited with their partners, said these families are “collateral damage for the government” in its quest to reduce net migration.

Caroline Coombs, executive director of Reunite Families UK, told The National that the increased minimum income threshold, coupled with lawyers' fees, is equal to “a price tag on love”.

“You are having to find this money all the time, so your life stops,” Ms Coombs said.

The Migration Observatory's analysis said that by the time a skilled worker with a partner and two children seeking to settle in the UK have lived in the country for seven years, they will have paid £41,500 in fees.

This includes an initial visa application fee of £2,876 and an immigration health surcharge, which increases over the seven years to a total of £18,110. Extending the visa costs £3,308 and applying to settle in the UK adds a further £11,640. A citizenship application costs £5,588.

The Royal Society, a scientific institution, conducted an analysis of advanced industrialised nations with strong scientific bases, including the US, Germany and Australia, and found that Britain charges a considerable amount more than any other country surveyed for a skilled worker visa.

A recent report by the House of Commons Library said that the health surcharge pushed up the initial cost of British visas, while these costs are recouped through insurance premiums in other countries.

But the Royal Society report said “UK Skilled Worker visa costs were still considerably higher than the other countries studied”.

The Migration Observatory’s Ben Brindle, author of the analysis of the fees increase, said one reason for the rise was to fund the operations of the Home Office, which has been hit by budget cuts in recent years.

In addition, he told The National that “there has been a drive to reduce net migration, and one can see how the two are related and how you can get from one to another”.

Cost deterrent

Mr Brindle said the government’s own analysis shows that the fees have not acted as a deterrent to skilled workers seeking to come to the UK. However, he added that “calculations underpinning this should be taken with a pinch of salt”.

“It’s unlikely to be the case in all scenarios. Presumably there is a tipping point where fee increases do start to deter work migrants from coming to the UK.”

The impact of ever-increasing fees has created extreme hardship for hundreds of thousands of migrants in the Britain, affecting almost every aspect of their lives, the charity Migrant Voice has said.

According to a survey carried out by the charity, two thirds of people said the costs had forced them into debt, with some owing as much as £30,000.

Migrant Voice director Nazek Ramadan told The National that “the extortionate cost of visas is bad for everybody”.

“It is driving migrants into financial hardship, and some into destitution, and exacerbating skills shortages in essential sectors,” he added.

“The current system is ripping families apart, increasing exploitation of workers, damaging people’s mental and physical health, and making the most basic of rights reliant on how much you earn.”

Meanwhile, for families seeking to be reunited with partners, parents and children divided by visa rules, things are about to get a lot harder.

The new income threshold also applies to those working for the Home Office or NHS, as well as solicitors, teachers and other professionals, Ms Coombs said.

Many of those who want to come to the UK to be with their families are being given the “offensive” label “dependants”, she added.

“You've got people who are earning good amounts of money wherever they are, but need to come to the UK to be with their family. They're not even considered, and they're treated like they're second-class citizens.”

Ms Coombs, who works as a TV producer, said it had taken almost two years for her Ecuadorean husband to be allowed to relocate to Britain.

“The obsession with immigration, be it illegal or legal, has become so poisonous and nasty that we've become a country where it is OK to wilfully separate a British citizen and their child, or effectively put a ban on cross-border love, with devastating consequences,” she said.

Families are “paying the price in far too many negative ways, because the government is scapegoating migrants and has an unhealthy obsession with lowering net migration”, she added.

“They contribute to society and they do not have access to the public purse. My husband has a biometric card which says he has no recourse to public funds.”

Families paying the price

The minimum income threshold rules also mean British citizens must often decide between leaving their partners and children for long periods of time or remaining exiled abroad and leaving elderly parents alone in the UK, Ms Coombs said.

Research carried out by Reunite Families UK has found that this separation has a severe impact on children’s mental health, with many suffering from behavioural and emotional issues.

Families having “negative and traumatic experiences” are then hit with fees “that have gone up when there is a cost of living crisis” as they try to “maintain a job that keeps them within the minimum income requirements”, Ms Coombs said.

She and her husband have to pay the immigration health surcharge each time he reapplies for the right to remain in Britain.

“My husband is paying taxes and National Insurance, so we’re paying twice. You can't afford luxuries like going on holiday and stuff like that. It feels like you are literally just existing in this country, surviving.”

The Home Office said it was “a long-standing UK government policy that those who use and benefit most from the immigration system should contribute towards the cost of operating it, reducing the burden on the UK taxpayer”.

“Anyone bringing dependants to live in the UK must be able to financially support them,” it added.

Updated: April 10, 2024, 11:32 AM