How immigration policy brutalises British children

For three years we've had a law banning people on low incomes from living with their husband or wife, if they're from outside the EU.

It's not called a ban, of course, it's called an income requirement. But that's what it is. Any Brit who earns less than £18,600 is not entitled to live in their home country with their wife or husband if they happen to be a non-EU citizen. The threshold rises to £22,400 if they have a child and again by another £2,400 for any additional children. The benchmark is 138% of the minimum wage. Almost half the adult UK population don't earn it.

It hits those couples who meet outside the UK hardest. In cases where they've been living for years in countries with much lower incomes than the UK, it's obviously hard for them to fulfil the requirement when, as they often do, they decide to come home to raise their kids. Usually they have to split up. The UK citizen comes home, starts work and after a year or so will have the evidence needed to convince the Home Office to grant the spousal visa.

Many will fail, simply by not being able to find a job which pays enough. Those that do, quickly find events slipping out of their control. Once the spousal visa has been rejected, their wife or husband is rarely granted a tourist visa. They are blocked from coming here at all.

Now a new report by the children's commissioner has revealed the full effect of this law: traumatised children separated from their parent, an increased reliance on benefits and a persistent contravention of British law by the Home Office. It is a damning assessment of what our immigration policy has done, a story of how government policies have directly brutalised British children.

"My son went from a bubbly little boy to very reserved in the first few months of the separation," a mum of a six year old boy told researchers. "He was angry at us both but couldn't understand why dad won't want to live with him. He would go from angry kicking out, to long periods of crying and thought dad didn't love him. They are still working at rebuilding their relationship and trust."

This type of reaction is fairly common. The report found that children separated from their parents suffer significant anxiety and distress. "Many believe this has a profound effect on their well-being and development," the children's commissioner report concluded."

Many families reported that the children had become clingy and dependant on one parent, or that they had developed separation anxiety and become socially withdrawn. Others said their child had started to have difficulty socialising at school. Some developed eating and sleeping problems, slow or poor language development and displayed anger and violence toward peers and family. Some children described feelings of guilt over the separation of their parents.

For some families, the strain of separation is too much and the parents split up. Here's what the Home Office policy did to one family:

"My husband and I are separating in part because we can't take the stress anymore. I have an elderly mother in England who needs me to be there. My children will hopefully see daddy once a month now if he continues living in Ireland. If he returns to America it will likely be once a year."

Childred separated from the parents can suffer significant stress and anxiety

The policy was supposedly introduced to prevent low-income families relying on state funds. What this explanation misses is that spousal visas anyway do not permit the use of state funds. But it's worse than that. The policy is actually forcing people onto benefits, by a process well understood by any single parent – making it impossible for them to hold down full-time jobs.

"I can only work part-time, as I need to be able to do school runs at the beginning and end of each day," a mother of two children, aged six and nine, said. "So I am on a low wage and claiming benefits. I wouldn't need to claim benefits if my husband was here – we could both work, one of us full-time, and earn plenty to live off."

The children's commissioner found that "reliance on welfare is not reduced and sometimes families are forced to rely on benefits because they are single parents".

Occasionally the government will justify the policy by saying it encourages the 'integration of the non-EU partner. This is also given short shrift by the children's commissioner, who says there is evidence integration was actually reduced. It is also given short shrift by the Brits who married these foreign citizens, and for good reason. Someone married to a Brit looks pretty integrated. Who is the Home Office to come along and cast some judgement on whether they are British enough?

"As far as I'm concerned, if my wife has got British children and a British husband, she already is integrated in the British society," one husband said. "You cannot say to someone who is so deeply integrated into British society that she has got children – you cannot say to that person 'do not come in here'. She is already integrated. Already."

Not only is the policy immoral and self-defeating. It may also be illegal. UK governments are under a legal obligation to treat the best interests of children as a primary consideration when implementing rules and making individual decisions. That's legally actionable under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but also in section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.

But according to John Vine, former chief inspector of borders and immigration, the children's interests are only considered in one of 60 cases which he saw. It's hardly surprising. Under which conceivable definition of children's interests would we separate them from one of their parents?

The report's analysis of refusal decisions found a lack of detailed consideration of children's best interests. In eight out of eleven cases the existence of the children was ignored. In the remaining three it was a formulaic consideration with very little substantive analysis.

It's as if the Home Office was going for the full house with this one: morally abysmal, economically counter-productive, politically toxic and probably illegal.