In 2012, the UK passed new laws that made it harder for non-EU spouses to enter Britain. Today, some Cambodian mothers have found themselves shut off from their own children
In August this year, 30-year-old Sophea bid an agonising farewell to her five-year-old son, who lives with his father in England. Being separated from the child she loves has become a bitter routine for the Cambodian mother who, like many others, is prevented from living permanently with her partner and offspring because of UK immigration rules.
Sophea’s son spent a month in Cambodia over the summer, but lives most of the time with his father in England, while his mother remains in Phnom Penh with the couple’s little girl, who is 18 months old.
“It’s hard being away from my son,” she said, at the Phnom Penh hotel where she works part-time. “When I hear that he’s sick, I want to feed him and take care of him. It’s very painful.”
Sophea and her partner have applied for six-month UK visitor visas five times since they got together in 2009. Only one was granted, in 2011, a couple of years after their son’s birth.
“They said we did not have enough finances, even though my partner has bought a house for us here which is now worth about $50,000,” Sophea said. “The money is the thing they seem to
really care about.”
In 2012, the British government brought in sweeping changes, making it much harder for non-EU partners or spouses to enter the UK, including a tough new minimum income rule.
The additional stipulation said any British citizen who wanted to sponsor a non-EU spouse or partner’s visa application must have savings of at least $94,000, or earn more than $27,900 a year, way above the UK minimum wage of $21,000 per annum.
“When we applied for a ‘family visit visa’ for Sophea, I didn’t have a permanent job and my income was fairly low, so the application was rejected on financial grounds,” said Sophea’s partner, a construction worker. “I didn’t want to split Sophea and my son up, but we struggled to find a good school for him in Cambodia and I wanted to come back to the UK to find work.”
Before 2012, anyone wanting to bring a spouse or partner to the UK, only had to show that this could be done without relying on taxpayer support, an amount the British courts set at around just $8,000 per year.
About 18,000 non-EU spouses or partners annually were likely to be prevented from joining their families as a result of the hike in the minimum income requirement, according to a 2013 report by British parliamentarians.
UK barrister and immigration law expert John Pike claims the tough new UK visa rules hitting Cambodians like Sophea are a response to widespread fraud perpetrated by applicants elsewhere in the world.
“Because of serial abuses of the immigration system by sham or ‘arranged’ marriages from south Asia, the visa entry system for spouses or partners has now been made so difficult, with impossible entry requirements, that innocent families are suffering the consequences,” he said.
Sophea’s British partner said the strict immigration rules were having a devastating effect on his family.
“My son pines for his little sister as much as his mother, and that’s a big part of his life he’s missing out on,” he said. “But my daughter is missing out most. She needs an older sibling around her and she needs her dad as well.”
When relationships break down, the UK’s restrictive visa rules create a huge power imbalance between British fathers and their Cambodian partners.
Fathers are free to come and go to Cambodia as they please, but their partners or wives can often find themselves stranded in the country, unable to see their children.
For 35-year-old Channary this predicament has meant a three-year separation from her five-year-old daughter, Rose, who has lived in the UK since her mother took her there on a six-month visitor visa in 2012 – just before the new immigration rules came into force.
Channary says she took Rose to visit her British husband, who she had met and married in Cambodia, because she wanted the family to be together and hoped to one day be able to move to England permanently.
But when her six-month visa expired, just after her daughter’s second birthday, Channary says her husband’s family persuaded her to return to Cambodia without Rose, promising to bring the child to rejoin her in a few months.
She also claims they promised to arrange a visa so the family could live together in the UK.
Once she was back in Cambodia, however, Channary says, her husband and his family did not fulfil their promises.
“It’s been terrible for me and my family here,” she said. “I miss Rose so much and think about her all the time.”
Channary added that she had made three further applications for a UK visitor visa since 2012 but all had been rejected.
The only time she has seen Rose has been for a few seconds during a court-ordered visit to Phnom Penh last month. However, contrary to the court order, Channary brought her family to greet her daughter at
“I love Rose so much, and couldn’t resist going to the airport to bring her flowers to greet her,” she said.
When the little girl saw her mother, she rushed towards her but was snatched away by her father before she and her daughter could be reunited, Channary claims.
Rose sustained a minor shoulder injury and scratched arm as Channary’s mother and her mother-in-law started to fight over the child, according to an airport security officer who intervened.
The British family immediately turned around and boarded an afternoon flight to Malaysia before returning to England.
UK barrister John Pike says the British court’s requirement that Channary stay away from the airport involved a cultural misunderstanding.
“It is hard for courts in England to understand the importance of ceremony in Cambodia,” he said. “The welcome at airports for returned relatives is a normal and effusive event involving the wider family in Cambodia.
“Not to greet an arriving family member in this way could be a matter of shame.”
Pike also believes the British Embassy’s repeated refusal since 2012 to grant Channary a visitor visa breaches her human rights.
“Advice received from a leading human rights barrister indicates that Channary would succeed in actions based on human rights,” he said.
“However, she cannot get funding for what would be an expensive action that could take many years, as it would be contested by the British government.”
A further High Court hearing in London is scheduled for December to decide what further contact there should be between Channary and her daughter.
For legal reasons, Post Weekend did not attempt to contact Rose’s father for comment.
In response to Post Weekend’s questions, the British Embassy in Phnom Penh pointed out that “UK visa applications from Cambodia are assessed by UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) in Bangkok”.
“It is not possible to comment on individual cases,” a spokesperson said in the emailed response. “UK Visas & Immigration is committed to providing an excellent service to our customers. All visa applications are assessed on individual merit and applicants must meet the terms of the UK’s immigration rules in order to be granted a visa.”
Not all Cambodian mothers have such negative experiences with the British embassy.
Pinut met the father of her son in 2012, and just before Christmas that year she became pregnant. Her partner, who stayed with her throughout the pregnancy, was committed to building a life with his new family.
But just a week after their child was born, the boy’s father fell from a ladder while he was fixing up his son’s bedroom, and he soon started complaining of stomach pains.
“He didn’t go to a doctor in Cambodia, but went back to the UK in August 2014, where he had a scan and was diagnosed with cancer,” Pinut said.
Pinut applied to the British Embassy to take her son to visit his father in the UK after doctors said the 47-year-old had just a few weeks to live.
In these tragic circumstances, the British embassy was helpful and efficient.
“I applied for an emergency six-month visitor visa and got it really quickly, and was able to see my partner before he died,” she said. “The embassy didn’t cause any problems when they saw our situation.”
Back at the hotel where Sophea works, it’s a very different story. She reflects stoically on her slim chances of ever obtaining a visa to enter the UK.
“I’ve stopped crying, and I’ve given up on all this stuff with the embassy for now,” she says. “They just don’t understand anything about being a mother, about families. I just feel angry after making all these applications. Very angry.”
Names of all family members have been changed for legal and privacy reasons.
Spousal visa rules on three continents
You must prove you are a direct “family member” of an EU citizen and show you will be travelling with or joining that person for a visit or permanent move to an EU member state.
In addition to the above, you need French documentation – either the “livret de famille”, a copy of your French marriage certificate or a French official transcription of your marriage certificate if the marriage took place outside France.
In addition to the EU requirements above, you need to prove your UK partner has the required minimum income to sponsor your visa application. They must have either savings of at least $94,000, or an annual income of no less than $27,900.
You need a medical examination, evidence of financial support (your spouse needs an annual income of about $20,000), and evidence of the validity of the relationship. You also need a birth certificate, marriage certificate, a divorce or death certificate of any previous spouse(s), and police certificates from your present country of residence and all countries where you have lived since age 16 describing any criminal record.
You must be married to, or in a de facto (common law) relationship, with an Australian citizen or permanent resident. Your partner must sponsor you for a period of two years. You will be required to provide proof of your legal marriage and prove your relationship is genuine and continuing.