Among the outcry of public anger about the UK's treatment of refugees, it's worth remembering that this sits in the context of an overall approach to immigration. Here Lisa Houston, who lives in Burma, explains what a 'tough stance on immigration' means for people like her.
Where’s The Value?
The Family Migration Law is one part of the current UK government’s tough stance on migration, by their “Hostile Environment Working Group”. The policy was developed to prevent non EEA partners sponging off the welfare state, yet according to a report by the Migrant Rights Network, the working group didn’t examine whether this was or was not a general trend for non EEA partners. In fact, non EEA partners are not entitled to access benefits or tax credits etc for a period of 5 years following entry into the UK. Another part of the rationale was that it would reduce people gaining entry to the UK through sham marriages.
The Family Migration Law is not well known about. What it means is that if your partner is not from the European Union then, you as the citizen of the UK need to be earning at least £18,600 a year. If there is a child, the amount increases to £22,400 with an additional £2400 for each child who is not a UK citizen.
Mine is not a sham marriage, but for the last 17 years my annual income has never risen above £6000. In my three years of raging against the policy I keep coming back to “value” and how that is considered in relation to people in families, in communities, and in nations.
I have been working with community organisations on the Thai Burma border for the best part of 20 years. Organisations led and managed by people affected by the ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in Burma.
My low income life has always been rich. I have had the enormous privilege of working with brave and inspiring people on a daily basis. Do an internet search on any of these women: Dr Cynthia Maung, Charm Tong, Naw K’Nyaw Paw, Zoya Phan, Zipporah Sein, or Khin Ohmar, and you’ll see what I mean. Just a sprinkling of the many courageous activists I am truly honoured to work with.
The food is amazing and the weather is a lot better than the UK, the sense of community, the laughter and the support; all of these have given our family a good, abundant life.
Here, I am acutely aware of my privilege; my low income by UK standards is a very high income compared to the vast majority of the people around me (while I have averaged less than £6000 per year, most people I work with receive an annual income of less (and often a lot less) than £800 a year), I have never felt the fear that too many of my friends have experienced and my passport keeps me safe.
A few years ago I reduced my workload on the border and our family moved to a community farm outside of Chiang Mai, where we grow our own food, save and share seed and build our own houses out of adobe bricks. I am part of a women’s earth building movement, with our 6th all women adobe building workshop coming up in December this year.
And I am raising my children. Raising them, I hope, to see value in being able to grow their own food, build their own houses, trying to teach them social justice, to take a stand against discrimination and to be grateful for those who dare to speak out for themselves, especially those from minorities who struggle every day to have their voices heard.
I recently had a particularly angry piece published in the Scottish Left Project’s Viewpoints page which looked at British Values and how the Tories are marketing these alongside their hostility to migrants, linked to the Family Migration Law and its impact on me. Coincidentally, the article was published the same day that David Cameron responded to the potentially deadly journey of migrants through Calais, by referring to them as “swarms of people” trying to reach our fine shores. His concern was for the disruption to British holiday makers with not an ounce of compassion uttered for the people who have died attempting the crossing, nor for the suffering that causes so many to make the dangerous journey from their homelands. The article did not seem angry enough.
2013, a few months after I first learned of the Family Migration Law and how it affected me, saw the first official visit of a Burmese president to the UK in decades, indicating the UK’s willingness to now engage with the new government of Burma. (Among President U Thein Sein's achievements are according to Burma Campaign UK: responsibility for the 1988 massacres of student demonstrators, the violent suppression of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, as well as 45 rapes of women in Shan State by soldiers who were under his command).
The UK since that first warm embrace of the former military has become the fifth biggest investor in Burma and this year the UK government is promoting investment in the energy sector, eager to increase the economic opportunities available to the UK from this undemocratic nation.
On the same day that Cameron came out with the “swarms”, he discussed the need to look at the root causes of migration. From where I sit on the Thai Burma border, where thousands of migrants cross every day, the root cause of displacement is increasingly becoming land confiscation and displacement caused by companies taking over customary lands for economic investment in the natural resources of Burma, especially in the gas and energy sector. The ongoing conflict is directly connected to the struggle to secure access to the profits from resource extraction, profits which do not make it to the people most in need, profits that the UK is clearly after. UK investments are unlikely to be very clean, business in Burma is impossible without a military crony at your side and the UK government is doing little to seriously challenge the Burmese government on the practices that continue to result in mass displacement, exploitative and dangerous labour practices, military rape, loss of land, homes and clean water sources - not when that much profit is at stake.
It’s safe to assume that the story of UK investment in Burma is likely replicated in other countries with high exodus levels.
The Burmese President's trip cost the UK tax payer £30,000, for a few days visit, way more than I would need to earn in a year for the right to be able to return to my home thanks to the UK Family Migration Law. The food and accommodation alone cost £18,000.
Recently I did a review of a community organisation’s restructuring process. One of the things they had done was to change from having a flat rate pay scale, with small amounts of extras for people with children, that did not distinguish between say teachers and cleaners or managers and manual labourers. The new pay scale awarded people for things like their managerial responsibilities and qualifications. During the interviews one woman, a cleaner with kids, who was adversely affected by the new policy told me: “It felt like I was being assessed and found to be of no value”. A sentiment that surely rings true for all of us affected by the Family Migration Law.
So what do I tell my children about the values of the country that has given them a passport? The country that ironically still allows me to vote? That my country has assessed us and found our family to be of no value? But that they are happy to cosy up to the various war criminals causing massive displacement around the world.