The Home Office recently reversed its decision to ban the young children of Oxford University Professor Amber Murrey from living with her in the UK. This is believed to be the second time in a week it has reversed a visa refusal for the child of an Oxford academic.
The University and the elite Russess Group of Universities, of which Oxford is a member, are asking the Home Office to change its rules on child visas. Some angry overseas academics say that other universities are not doing enough to fight their corner against the Home Office.
Academics say the government’s aggressive tactics are putting off talented international applicants from moving to the UK. Professor Murrey’s case sparked an outrage.
Murrey who is an associate professor of geography described her ‘complete disbelief’ at learning that the Home Office had rejected her application for dependant child visas for her two daughters, aged four and nine, to join her in Oxford.
Professor Murrey’s husband has business commitments in Cameroon, where he is from, and both parents had given written consent for the girls to be with their mother until the family could live together.
Murrey filed an appeal to the Home Office on the grounds that they had not read the evidence properly. She consequently received a letter saying the visas would be issued after all. No explanation was given for the change of heart. Although she says it is wonderful news, she will continue to feel nervous until the visas are received and her daughters reunited with her and able to start school.
Just a short time before Professor Murrey’s decision the Home Office had reversed a similar decision to refuse a visa to the nine-year-old son of Dr Wesam Hassan, a GP from Egypt beginning a PhD at Oxford. The Home Office had ignored the fact that Hassan’s husband is a humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in Yemen, which is designated a ‘non-family station’ because of the conflict there. Her son having been shut out of the UK has been living with her sister in Egypt. She says the separation has caused ‘trauma’ for her family.
Universities say these are far from isolated cases, many other international academics face similar obstacles when trying to bring their children into the country. Oxford University lobbied the Home Office hard on Murrey’s behalf, including suggesting that the government was violating European law or children’s rights by splitting up her family.
Unfortunately, not all academics have enjoyed such support, highlighted by the case of plans to deport Dr Furaha Asani, a young academic at Leicester University, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, and which she had never visited. Leicester had not offered Asani any legal or other support and said it was ‘committed to inclusivity’ but unable to influence the Home Office decision.
Mark Pendleton, a lecturer in Japanese studies at Sheffield Univerity and co-founder of the campaign group International and broke, said that if being an international university is to mean anything it must, at the very least, mean defending non-UK staff when they come under threat of deportation and providing them with material support. He also said that migrant staff have been asking universities for help with Home Office problems for years and getting ‘little or no support’.
Immigration policy analyst at the Russess Group Ben Moore feels that although the government has sent some positive signals about supporting science after Brexit, the rules on child visas appears to give highly sought after academics the impression that ‘we want you but your family aren’t welcome’ – this does not work.
A spokesperson from Oxford said: “We are delighted to see that the Home Office has reversed its ruling in the cases of Murrey and Hassen. We now hope the government will review its policy on visas for dependants which has a disproportionate impact on women with children and also has a detrimental effect on British universities ability to attract the very best academics from abroad”.
Professor Murrey commented on the fact that she realizes how widespread this situation is just from the emails she has received. Each individual person has a complicated story, and it is almost always heartbreaking. Many cases never come to light because families very often simply decide not to come to the UK when their children’s vias are denied. Visas are refused because of a Home Office rule which says that a child may only be given a visa if both parents are living in the UK unless the parent living here has sole responsibility.
Dr Vicky Lewis who runs a consultancy which advises universities on international strategies feels that there are numerous examples of institutions not being able to recruit the people they would like because of the hostile environment and hurdles people have to jump through. It often means losing the best candidates.
The Academy of Social Sciences is calling for the government to strike a special sector deal-making universities ‘trusted sponsors’ of international staff with a much lighter-touch system and no minimum salary threshold. Head of policy at the academy says in many cases researchers are being refused visas to work in the UK, foreign academics are being blocked from attending conferences, and researchers are turning down UK job offers because of the visa costs, or bureaucracy. She feels that aside from the individual injustices, this system is far too difficult to navigate and doesn’t support knowledge or research.
The rules are more complicated and byzantine and it is easier and easier for people to fall foul of them.
An Australian lecturer in social science at the Open University, Dr Jess Perriam, says that both academics and universities have become terrified of the Home Office. If you’ve come over here as a student since 2012 you are acutely aware of how precarious your situation is. The Home Office rules are frightening and confusing and there is a fear for both academics and the university that you won’t know when you have done something wrong until the Home Office comes knocking.
The Home Office says its child visa policy is designed to protect children and the family unit, but it keeps all rules under constant review.
“We welcome international academics from across the globe”.