As a citizen of any free country, you might be forgiven for thinking that the person you marry will be able to live with you. But increasingly that’s not the case, especially as wealthy countries grow panicky about immigration.
A stark example comes from the UK. Any British citizen with a spouse from outside the European Economic Area has to prove that they earn an income of at least £18,600 ($23,300) before their partner can come to live with them—an amount 24% higher than the national annual minimum wage. The rule was introduced in 2012 as part of a campaign by Theresa May—then minister in charge of domestic policy, now prime minister—to limit immigration, and has been the subject of legal challenges from families who say they’ve been torn apart by the policy. This week, in a ruling by the UK’s highest court, the families lost.
The UK isn’t the only country to impose economic requirements on citizens, who are often referred to as “sponsors” of their foreign spouse. According to data collected by the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) in 2014, several countries have even stricter policies:
MIPEX ranked 38 developed, liberal “destination” countries for a range of restrictions placed on immigration. “Family Reunion” is one category, with a number of sub-indicators that MIPEX incorporates into an overall score. The UK scored worst out of all the countries for family reunion policies. Spain had the best score. The US was near the middle, in 14th place.
Age is another barrier to spouses uniting across borders. Danish citizens can’t bring spouses to live with them if the spouse is under the age of 24, and several other countries require them to be over 20 or 21.
A host of countries don’t recognize same-sex relationships, including marriage and civil partnerships: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Italy, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Turkey. And in Australia, being married isn’t enough—same-sex couples have to prove they’ve been living together for 12 months before they can be united (which is something of a Catch-22, if they’re not allowed to).
Having children doesn’t necessarily help, either. In the UK, if a dependent child was born outside Europe, the British partner has to earn even more—£22,400 ($28,100)—before their spouse is allowed live with them. Research from Oxford University noted that women are disproportionately disadvantaged by higher income policies, because of the gender pay gap.
A wave of populist politics sweeping the West is not helping. “Family reunion is increasingly politicised, with policies changed based on electoral promises, not robust evaluations. Policies are mostly restricted based on statistics about the number of applications, not on evidence of their impact on integration,” MIPEX wrote on its site.
Policies like this exist in part to stop arranged or fraudulent marriages becoming an easy route to citizenship. But they also keep legitimate families apart. In passing down its recent judgement, the UK’s Supreme Court judges noted the hardship that the rule had caused to families, especially children. A 2015 report found that as many as 15,000 British children were growing up in “Skype families,” where their relationship with one parent is restricted to calls, despite the parents wanting to live together.