Young adult marriage visa ban: unjust, now unlawful

Picture of the British Supreme Court in Parliament Square, LondonSupreme Court overturns non-EU young spouses ban (from BBC News)

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that a government ban on British citizens bringing spouses under the age of 21 from outside the EU to live in the UK, introduced under the Labour government ostensibly to prevent forced marriage, is unlawful. The court heard that two couples, one including a husband from Chile and the other with a bride from Pakistan, had been separated or forced to live outside the UK for extended periods, in one case resulting in the British spouse losing a university place. There was also a challenge from a British-Canadian couple, who were separated as the Canadian wife could not come to live in the UK and the British husband could not find work in Canada.

I’ve covered this issue before, and there are two separate issues at play here. One is that the former Labour government pretended this was about preventing forced marriage, spinning lurid stories about how “victims can suffer physical and emotional damage and can find themselves being held unlawfully captive, assaulted and raped”. The problem is that, during the research that led to this rule being introduced, victims of forced marriage and the organisations that represent them were asked whether a rise in the minimum marriage age would be helpful, and only one in six said yes. This clearly indicates that the reason for the measure was nothing to do with forced marriage and everything to do with eliminating back-home marriages in the Asian community, which were being blamed for everything from the 2001 Bradford riots to the 2005 London bombings. The anti-immigration pressure group “Migration Watch”, well-known for lurid tales of the disasters immigration would bring to the UK, had been agitating for a rise in the minimum age to rise to 24, in line with Denmark.

There are obvious inconsistencies in the law: it is aimed at people bringing spouses from developing countries, but also applies to countries like Canada; it allows spouses to be brought from poorer regions of Italy or Portugal, but not the USA or Canada; it also ignores the fact that many Canadians and Australians have British citizenship anyway, yet this penalises those whose spouse does not have a recent British ancestor. It also allows couples to settle anywhere else in the EU except the British spouse’s home country. 18-year-olds are adults in almost every country, and it was common, especially for women, to marry at that age until only a generation ago. My parents married when my mother was 19 and my father, 20.

The second issue is that the outrage over the white couple separated by this rule demonstrates that the right-wing in this country never likes it when social control measures are brought in which obviously target a minority group and turn out to apply to them as well. The same was true when a white man makes jokes about blowing up an airport, and finds that pleading “it was a joke” gets him nowhere — recent history proves that just as terrorism has no colour, it also has no religion, judging by the repeated incidence of white Nazis found with stockpiles of weapons. The outrage was solely based on the principle that a white businessman making that threat must be joking — those others, on the other hand, must be serious. They do not accept that the law cannot discriminate on that basis.

As for this judgement, the government have said that they will “come forward with [their] response in due course”, which may include forming legislation to re-introduce it, or appealing to the European Court of Human Rights if that is possible for them; they argue that other countries have found a lower age limit of 21 to be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), but they also support scrapping the Human Rights Act which enshrines the convention in British law (making appeals by British citizens to the European Court unnecessary). The Human Rights Act is unpopular with the UK’s right-wing media, but so is this rule as it affects people far beyond its obvious target population.

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