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"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

Kept from House and Home

The UK Home Office gave my wife just two weeks to get out of the UK in November 2021 as soon as it abolished its Red List of countries for Covid19 travel restrictions. That meant both of us kicked out as it would be grossly unfair for the wife to travel alone. It did this irrespective of circumstances in the UK with the Omicron variant surging at that time; those en route or in Cambodia, and her Covid vaccination status that it ruled as "irrelevant". See Note 1 below.

An Alnwick chum beaten out of house and home

Most people never wonder what it is like to have to leave home. We mostly assume that we will be able to return and to be welcome back.  We expect to resume life as it was before our foray away. 

For many that first foray is a right of passage to higher education and even foreign travel to distant parts of the world in search of adventure and exploring exotic places and culture. 

Some of us make a career of living and working abroad.

Regrettably the world’s trouble-spots, whether man-made or after natural disaster, mean that those forays for too many are involuntary. They must abandon home. They might no longer have homes to return to. I first encountered the horror of this in Malawi, but even more so a few years later in Rwanda, working with refugees.  It is only people without such close dealings with refugees, who have not witnessed their suffering, who can deny them the right to seek safe sanctuary in countries like UK.  It’s why I wrote as I did for my booklet about Ockenden’s work with refugees.

Before encountering refugees I came across St Helena’s displaced migrant workers. Now most are voluntary migrants in search of better careers and income than they can attain at home on their small island. St Helena’s Diaspora abroad, on Ascension and Falkland Islands, in Cape Town or UK, now outnumbers the folks at home.  It’s led me to pose the question for many years that UK authorities responsible for St Helena daren’t answer: “Why do Saints do better off their island than on it?” Without a proper answer, and as people vote with their feet, too many of them never return home, even to end their days there. Some do not even go back for holidays as costs and logistics make it impossible.

In the case of my Cambodia friends isolated abroad, it is mainly politics and fear that keeps them from returning home. In theory when Cambodia’s conflicts came to an end, generally attributed to 1998 when the dissident remaining Khmer Rouge finally capitulated, then its citizens who fled abroad ought to be able to return.  Many have done so.  For others with new lives in the United States, France, and Australia, they choose to stay away.  However for a significant minority, it is the only sensible option as Cambodia’s current leadership has made it clear those with contrary political convictions from its own are not welcome.  Their lives and freedom would be imperiled if they returned home.  Professor Sophal Ear, one such-like, refers to involuntary exiles like him as “Anikachun”. I have previously blogged about this.

Over the years, because of my work in Cambodia, quite a few Anikachun have contacted me and kept in touch. I feel for them, just as you do every Christmas when Saints from far and wide around the world send greetings to their families at home on the Island.  This year, there will be hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians “in the same boat” unable to return home, separated from loved ones.

My pun or play-on-words is deliberate as is the link to the little boy who drowned after trying to cross the English channel for sanctuary, a refuge, a safe-home and a normal childhood.  How is that people are so callous to such plight? He died in vain. You'd expect the Home Office to have more compassion. It hasn't.

When I first decided to live and work abroad rather than pursue an easier career at home in the UK, I wagered that I would always eventually return home.  I even made provision for it by buying a house in Alnwick in Northumberland, my birth-place and where I grew up.  My family had moved South to Leicester, but with our extended family still in the North-East, Northumberland remained our spiritual home.  My late mother is but one member who returned there to live and end her days there.

Today in 2022 I am myself an “Anikachun”, an Alnwick Chum, refugee, a displaced person, deprived from returning home, because of the UK’s Hostile Environment immigration policies.  True I can return home any time but not with my Cambodian wife.  The UK only gives a qualified restricted respect to the “Right of a Family Life” there, even for British citizens if they have foreign spouses.  (This article explains more.)

I must confess to being disgusted by the policy introduced by Theresa May in 2012 to place onerous fees, high income limits and strict conditions on the issue of family visas. She enacted this in the year after I’d attained the Age of 60 and had chosen to take my modest small private pension so that I could continue to work voluntarily self-funded in Cambodia until I was 65. It is somewhat ironic that much of my work in Cambodia (and Malawi, Rwanda etc) has been to lead British Foreign Aid initiatives, both of the Government and major charities.  However none of that counts one iota with the Home Office.

My biggest disgust is based on one of the factors that the Home Office considers, even if it is not well-known. It says there is no automatic right to a UK citizen with a foreign spouse to be able to settle in the UK, especially if they can live abroad elsewhere.* See explanation below.  


Why does the Home Office – or the proportion of the population they are pandering to - find the presence in the UK of people like my Cambodian wife so offensive?  She’s been going to the UK with me for over 20 years, and spending 180 days a year in Alnwick with me since 2016.  Alnwick makes her welcome just as it does today with so many Ukrainian refugees.  However, because she overstayed due to Covid, through no fault of ours – foreign travel was stopped – and even though we religiously applied for and were given permission to stay, it seems the Home Office believes we fell foul of their rules.  So much for its assurances to the Home Affairs Committee that no-one should be punished for overstaying in UK due to Covid19.

Eight months have passed by waiting for the Home Office to sort out her visa status and that is despite our MP chasing it up several times.  We missed Spring; we missed marking anniversaries surrounding my Mother’s death in July last year; we missed the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee; we missed Wimbledon and of course the Lioness’s victory with Alnwick’s own Lucy Bronze in the team. It looks like we’ll miss Autumn. My house stands empty, burning wasted ultra-expensive electricity and gas as utilities must be left on for insurance purposes.

I accept that my enforced absence from home is not as extreme or desperate as the world’s refugees, other UK families caught by the same rules; St Helena’s distant separated families, or Cambodia’s “Anikachun”, but it’s a very unpleasant feeling to be stopped from returning home and with no idea if and when you might be allowed to return.

......ooo0ooo......

*  I have not dwelt on the question of how appropriate or safe it is for me to stay in Cambodia, although I did mention it in my submissions to the Home Office that there could be issues at any time.  There are also explanations in a previous blog.  I would have expected the Home Office to come back to me for more information before denying any right to a family life for us as a couple together in UK.

Updates - most recent first

Summary of Progress with the Visa application:

  • 9 December LiverpoolVisaInfo@fcdo.gov.uk - "arrived at the UKVI Decision Making Centre and is now awaiting consideration".
  • 8 December donotreply@vfsglobal.com - "Visa application for GWF reference number GWF068091926 was forwarded to UK Visas and Immigration ".

3 January 2023

We have decided to refer our case to the Independent Examiner of Complaints.

"We do so not so much for our own gain but in the hope that it leads to
better more responsive treatment especially when emergencies occur.

To be frank, we don't think our case should have been a case at all,
let alone giving rise to  so much angst, formidable expense and
voluminous work."

30 December

We've received a message to say that we can go to collect Viraden's passport (next week during passport collection times). No-one has said her visa was refused, so here's hoping!

28 December

We have today submitted our application for an ex-gratia payment for expenses incurred as mentioned we could do so in the final response to our complaint.

We have only applied for costs incurred in the aspect of the complaint where the Home Office has accepted liability and apologised - the unreasonable failure to respond to our questions from as long ago as May 2020 and the delay of 10 months in responding to the formal complaint.  Things like the value of air-tickets lost should be accepted but I suspect they will object to the request to take in to account that the Home Office deprived us of two periods of 3 months in the UK.  Due to constantly waiting for its response, the house in UK remained unoccupied when it could have been let out if we'd known there would be no response until November.

No amount of money can make up for all the stress that will exist until the wife's new visa is issued and she is allowed safely in to UK by Border Officials.

We have not at this stage claimed for the areas of our complaint the Home Office has not yet accepted, such as giving "migrants" just two weeks to leave UK regardless of personal circumstances or of those appertaining en route or in countries like Cambodia during Covid.  Those will have to be referred to the Independent Investigator.

10 December

Well having been given an amber/greenish light by the Home Office the wife's UK visitor visa application (the only choice possible in our case) is in and so we have to wait to see if it is approved. The final formalities including biometric data was completed at the "Cubby-Hole" of the company VFS-Global given the contract by the Home Office. At this stage all I will say that it is very much a Cambodian-style service, one that would not be accepted in UK, but as my wife said "That's what we Cambodians expect and accept".  It was different in the old days when you simply went to the Embassy.  An official there checked the form with you and that was that.

There were numerous extra services or charges. Despite being British and the money from my British bank I had to pay in $US for which my bank charged me £26.32 for the non GP£ transaction. Remember that had the Home Office not suddenly made us leave UK with just two weeks notice, this visa renewal could have been done in UK and without the hassle and extra expense of doing it in Cambodia.

* "Cubby-Hole". The VFS-Global reception is tiny (3 x 2 metres) with three staff plus a security guard and the customer. The waiting area is the adjacent foyer housing 4 lifts. Not Covid-safe.  The building belongs to one of Cambodia's most colourful tycoons. A strange choice for transacting a British operation.

26 November

A much better response from the Home Office including more apologies and an offer to consider compensation.  There are two issues where I still disagree with them but on the substance of the Cambodia wife being able to obtain a new visa, without undue difficulty, this looks better. Similarly even if they won't give guarantees, there is an indication that as Letters of Exceptional Assurance were given to cover the whole of the wife's overstay in UK, they should suffice to be allowed back in.

However, even if we do obtain a new visitor visa for the wife, we're not giving up the fight or abandoning our friends with Reunite Families.  Now one question - in how many walks-of-life, would you accept forking out UK£ 837 (US$ 1,000) for something having been warned you risk not getting what you want and losing it all?  That is the fee to renew my wife's visa. I've asked interested parties on Twitter. (Click on the image to read it clearly.)

10 November 2022

Have you ever had that feeling when you’re sure you’re being set up to be let down?  An informative Tweet today seems to warn that my wife and I were indeed being set up to apply for a visa only to be inevitably turned down.  As Colin Yeo explains, people have no rights when this occurs.  These phrases strike a common chord:

1.    “Your reasons for a visit at this time have failed to satisfy me that your intentions are those of a genuine visitor”.

2.  “I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry for a purpose that is permitted by the visitor routes or that you will leave the UK at the end of the visit."

3  “I am not satisfied that you have sufficient funds to cover all reasonable costs in relation to your visit without working or accessing public funds”.

In my wife’s and my case:

1.      I have gained the impression that our regular visits of 2 x 90 days per year to the UK for the past 4 years are regarded as “living in the UK” by the Home Office and one UK Border Official.

2.     My wife has visited the UK every year since 2000 at least 25 times and always left on time as pre-booked until Covid intervened, when our flights were cancelled, but as described, the Home Office has now marked my wife’s immigration record as not leaving as soon as they say we should have after giving us on 3 November 2021 just two weeks of notice to leave.*

3.    Our income as a pensioner couple is above the figure the UK government specifies to live on in UK £278.70 a week, £14,505 a year but £1,000 or so (after tax) below the sum the Home Office requires for a family spouse visa, i.e., the figure of £18,600 it applies.

* Update - the Home Office has officially denied that this is so. See update 26 November. We'll only know for certain if and when the new visa is approved.

2 November 2022

We have submitted our response to the Home Office and to my MP. It seems that the Home Office is relying on its decision that waiting for Covid boosters is not a valid reason not to leave UK. Therefore my wife did not leave as soon as she should. She, in their opinion, overstayed longer than needed and it was within our control to have departed at then end of October 2021. It served notice on my wife to leave UK within two weeks on 3 November, rejecting my contention at that time that Cambodia was not yet fully-open. It and the rest of the world had no idea that would begin to change on 15 November.  So, as the Home Office now warns, she can expect to be refused a new visa and/or to be refused entry at UK Border. We are arguing that it was not within our control, especially Cambodia's travel restrictions, and medical advice surrounding Covid and Omicron at the time not just in UK but around the world, still advised against taking risks and to be fully-vaccinated.  We await their response.  Happy to share full details of these exchanges with anyone interested.

29 October 2022

Home Office has at long last replied. Our complaint was "partially upheld". It didn't address several issues. More ominous is the warnings given that that any new visa application could be refused - and even if it wasn't, the wife may well still be refused entry at the UK Border. It boils down to the fact that as far the Home Office is concerned, once the UK dropped restrictions on travel to Cambodia, she had to leave. The fact that we delayed, even though the Home Office did give us appropriate "Letters of Exceptional Assurance" for the period until we did leave, appears to have blotted her immigration record.  

No response to the question about assurances the Home Office gave about the right to a Family Life and that no-one should be punished for overstaying in UK due to Covid.

No compassion at all on the prospect of making the Cambodia wife return home on her own nor on our enforced prolonged separation from UK family - now almost one year and it looks like indefinite - nor about the attendant costs and considerable stress it has imposed on us.  We do have the option to go back to them again within a month, so will do so.

25 October 2022

The United Kingdom's upper Parliamentary Chamber, House of Lords, its Justice and Home Affairs Committee is investigating the current Family Migration policies. It has formally accepted and published my submission of evidence that can be accessed here.

15 October 2022

The LESCSU has replied to my latest chase-up: "I am sorry that you have yet to receive a response to the complaint that you have raised. Please be assured that your complaint is being investigated.  I aim to provide you with a response by the close of business on Friday 28 October.  If it will not be possible to reply to you by that date, then I will write to you on 28 October to advise you when the reply will be issued."

12 October 2022

After exactly 276 days since first registering our complaint to the Home Office in January, and in reply to a follow-up request in April from my MP for a reply in April, today we have an actual reply from the Home Office.

It has merely set out the 2012 Immigration Rules without replying to any of the questions posed, in particular why its CIS Assurance Team officials questioned her visa status (or conduct) without explanation (or replies) and in effect are preventing her from entering the UK as the UK Visa Information Service (UKVI) says it cannot help with a new visa until it is cleared-up.  I have asked my MP to go back to them again but this time to ask for a formal final reply so that we raise the issue with the Parliamentary Ombudsman or for an immigration lawyer to pursue.

1 October 2022

No more words needed.

11 September 2022

I have just received confirmation from the Department of Work and Pensions that I was not awarded National Insurance auto-credits for the last 5 years of my working life as would have automatically applied if I had returned to stay in UK, and not chosen to stay abroad to work voluntarily self-funded with my NGOs.  (I agreed of course to continue to pay voluntary National Insurance contributions. My pension was well below the figure to pay tax.) The auto-credit scheme was intended, it is said, for people aged 60-65 not to register and count in unemployment figures.

I encountered a not dissimilar experience after returning to spend my retirement in UK from 2016 onward.  Then I fell foul of the way rules were interpreted and applied governing Council Tax and Housing Benefits. Our Council chose to penalise me after we left the UK for 3 months in order to comply with the wife's visitor visa limited stay requirements. It cancelled benefits retrospectively and made me repay them. Absences of that period and longer are permitted for studying abroad and other purposes but not for voluntary work overseas. (Age UK and VSO International have joined with me in trying to have those rules changed.) 

So this too does rather endorse my "Alnwick Chum" - or "Chump" charge that somehow UK authorities are biased against people living and working abroad.

Notes

1    As stated below the cartoon, the Home Office ordered the wife unceremoniously out the country as if she was a discovered illegal immigrant, not someone who happened to be in UK when Covid 19 struck and foreign travel stopped. I insisted that we stay until she had her booster, due within a month as immunity is known to wane from four months on.  Thus I incurred their wrath. This might explain why they're holding up sorting out her post Covid visa status although they keep blaming the Ukraine crisis since February for the delay.

It was back in August 2020 in reply to the extensions to allow her to stay until things improved, known as "Letters of Exceptional Assurance", that we queried two things. What did they mean by telling us "to regularise her stay in UK" and would we be allowed to revert to our pattern of 90 days stay in UK followed by 90 in Cambodia? I feared that without formal confirmation, entry would be denied at UK Border Control. Our pre-Covid pattern had complied with her 10 year multiple entry visitor visa.  We repeated these queries in December, again keeping my MP fully-informed.  As there was no reply we registered a formal complaint in January. The Home Office indicates it replies to complaints within 20 days.  We wanted to be sure that we could return to the UK at the end of March, as booked, with no problems leaving or arriving.

Despite follow-up requests from us and urgent appeals by my MP there was no reply from the Home Office  before our flight deadlines and not even since. We lost the full value of our return flight worth £1,110.

The wife's visa expired in April and the UK Visa Information Service says that it cannot help us, has no access to the Complaints Unit, and we must wait to hear from them. The Home Office has failed to respond to all the more recent follow-up pleas from my MP and me - situation as at 3 August, i.e., 170 days later than when the Home Office ought to have replied to the January complaint.

2    It was pure luck that Cambodia began to drop its own strictest entry measures on 15 November, so opening the chance for my Cambodian wife and I to return, although it took 3 more weeks to extend from mere tourists to ordinary/business visa-holders like me and I could obtain an entry visa on 9 December.  The Home Office's order to leave did not take account of such factors, let alone:

  • Arranging personal affairs in UK as needed for our absence, one of which was dealing with damage to the property caused by Storm Arwen. 
  • Availability of flights - there were very few - and their exorbitant cost.
  • Unavoidable extra costs of rail fares to Heathrow, two nights accommodation in London and pre-flight PCR tests.
  • Stress involved in risk of catching Covid19 en route, being unable to fly or denied boarding, or failing Covid entry tests on arrival in Cambodia, all would incur considerable cost penalties.
3    Exchanges with the Home Office:
  • CIS Assurance Team - only ever gave pre-prepared standard responses and never replied once to any personal questions raised with them from August 2020 in reply to Letters of Exceptional Assurance issued, hence our formal complaint January 2022 to:
  • LSECSU - Complaints Unit, (Case Ref: ZA26822) that in February apologised for no reply within its promised 20 days, and despite follow-up and reminders, has not replied yet other than a standard "please be patient" stock email, hence enlisting help again from my MP.
  • MP Account Management Team, approached on 16 and 22 March 2022 Julie Maxwell gave a reply on 6 April well after the deadline my MP specified was needed and..... suggested we registered a formal complaint to LESCU, even though the message to them from the MP was to ask them to chase up an already registered complaint, with the case reference given to do so! My MP's office immediately responded the same day, 6 April, on our behalf to point this out. Eventually on 11 October Mr John Hewitt replied merely setting out the 2012 immigration rules addressing none of the specific issues raised in the complaint.
  • SARU - Subject Access Request Unit - did reply (if 6 weeks late) and sent 58 pages of the wife's 22 year immigration record, redacted in parts, but appears to confirm that no breach or black mark against her, although any could be redacted. 
  • UKVI - Visa Information Service - a pay-for service that told us that "it can't help" as our case is with Complaints Unit and as they have no access to it, we must wait for them, before we can apply for a new visa.

4        Expenses incurred since UK Home Office ordered the Cambodia wife to leave in December 2021. This table will be updated from time to time.

Please note that I am not including day-to-day living expenses as we have these in both UK and Cambodia during our pre-Covid pattern of 3 months in each country. The aim is to indicate the extra costs incurred and which of course impacts heavily on our available income as a pensioner couple. The rate of exchange used is the actual one for money sent from UK to Cambodia – extra fees of US30 for the transaction each month are not listed.

Singapore Airline has confirmed to our travel agent no extension to the 6 months period to use our return tickets or any refund for the unused portion of the tickets.  So that's the easiest pure profit of £1,110 they have made! Its a double loss as we will now have to fork out a similar amount for replacement tickets.  Of course had we the faintest clue the Home Office would not permit Viraden's return, we could have booked one way and saved the loss!

Date

£

Calculations

Notes

21 Nov

2,219.06

 

Flight Singapore Airlines – LHR to Phnom Penh return, Viraden + me.

 

65.00

 

Special ordinary entry visa John Lowrie Cambodia Embassy + courier, as Cambodia was still under severe Covid restrictions.

15 Dec

241.70

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance to 25 March 2022.

21 Dec

60.70

 

Train travel Alnmouth to London (Two Together ticket)

 

4.80

 

Underground fares St Pancras to Hounslow West

 

9.21

 

Taxi Hounslow West to Guest House

22 Dec

92.00

 

Apple Guest House Heathrow x 2 nights

 

95.00

 

Dinner Pheasant Inn x 2 Nights

 

155.00

 

PCR Test 3 hour Collinson 2 x £77-50 required by airline and Cambodia – fortunately we pass entry Covid tests, so no need to hotel quarantine.

23 Dec

25.00

(UK = £2,967.47)

Taxi Guest House to Terminal 2


Cambodia

24 Dec

15.87

US$20 / 1 = 1.26

Taxi Phnom Penh Airport to Takhmau home.

  6 Jan

175.35

US$ 226.20?/1.28

John Lowrie Medical expenses Cellulitis, maybe stress caused or contributed. Should get back £95.35 from travel insurance.

24 Jan

130.00

$165/1.28

John Lowrie E-Retirement visa Cambodia 6 months.

26 Mar

29.42

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance 26 March to 25 April (Paid-for in UK in £)

  2 Apr

7.72

$9.50/1.23

20 days supply 20 mg daily Atorvastatin – NHS supplied me only to end March.

21 Apr

15.44

$19.00/1.23

John Lowrie Travel insurance 27 August to 26 October

24 Apr

124.12

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance 25 April to 26 June

 1 Jun

15.70

$19/1.21

John Lowrie Travel insurance 27 August to 26 October

19 Jun

20.66

$25/1.21

Tuk Tuk to Health Clinic for Pfizer Covid Booster (no fee for vaccine)

26 June

127.21

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance 27 June to 26 August

19 July

16.10

$19/1.18

40 days supply 20 mg daily Atorvastatin

29 July

140.00

$165/1.18

John Lowrie E-Retirement visa Cambodia 6 months.

20 Aug

130.21

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance 27 August to 26 October

7 Sep

18.00

$20.70/1.15

40 days supply 20 mg daily Atorvastatin – new supplier.

27 Oct

84.41

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance 27 Oct to 26 December

27 Oct

18.26

$19/1.04

40 days supply 20 mg daily Atorvastatin

5 Dec

18.26

$19/1.04

40 days supply 20 mg daily Atorvastatin

5 Dec

863.76

 

UK 10 year Visa Fee - paid in $US, Bank converted and charged.

5 Dec

26.32

 

Charge for non UK£ transaction

7 Dec

71.71

 

VFS-Global Fee for handling visa application, biometrics.

7 Dec

2.14

 

Charge for non UK£ transaction

9 Dec

3.39

 

VFS-Global – extra fee for SMS text message when passport ready for collection.

16 Dec

197.45

 

John Lowrie Travel insurance 26 December to 20 March

 


(Cambodia £2233.50.)

 

 


(Total  £5218.97)

+ £ 1,089.50 cost of air-fares to UK as original ones forfeited kept by Singapore Airlines.  

£ 2,099.60 for return trip booked March 2023

 

 

 

+ paying out for UK house costs (as well living expenses in Cambodia) for 2 x 3 month periods when unable to stay there. Unlike UK, we incur few charges when away from Cambodia.

 

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