Stranded

My name is Richard Wallace, a British Citizen, and I’ve been happily married to Riekje (official name: Hendrika van de Put), from the Netherlands, for over 28 years (August 1993). We have 4 teen/adult children, who are also British Citizens. We embraced the freedom we were offered to live, study, work and make our home in Europe for 30 years (in our case: The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain).

As the implications of Brexit became clearer, particularly concerning the diminished rights Riekje would have to live in the UK post Brexit, we decided to move back to the UK this summer (2021).

We found the information on the UK-GOV website, pertaining to a British Citizen returning to the UK with an EU spouse, somewhat unclear, confusing and at times contradictory (it has since been updated). Emails to UKVI predictably got the same response: “All the information is on the UK-GOV website”. We eventually applied for a EU Family Permit and followed the Surinder Singh route. We carefully followed the UK-GOV guidance at the time for applying for an EUSS Family Permit – that approval usually takes a few days, and that if approved more than 2 months ahead of the stated departure date we could lose 2 months of the 6 months. So we applied (we thought wisely) for her Family Permit two months before our planned move on the 30th July. How little we knew at the time!

We called UKVI after 4 weeks to see how the application was progressing only to be informed that they could not help until the 12 week mark when they might be able to expedite the application.

We kept our options open for an eleventh-hour approval, like pre-booked Covid tests, but moving day arrived and there had been no response. Sadly, Riekje had to stay behind in Madrid and watch on as her family, dog and belongings moved to the UK without her; left stranded in Spain, without a home, couch-surfing with various friends, and only her small carry-on of summer clothes. (If things are not resolved soon she’ll need to buy a new set of winter clothes!) I was left needing to go through the stress of an international move, setting up home in rented accommodation in Southampton, getting my daughter ready for school and our 3 sons settled back into UK universities, without my wife and partner.

Our 15 year old daughter (a minor and, don’t forget, British Citizen) is suffering emotionally because she’s never lived in the UK and now needs to start a new school (6 September) and make new friends without the support of her mother. The time and energy required being a “single parent” has significantly diminished my ability to focus adequately on my work. I also have a pending operation on my hand that’s been delayed by Covid-19 and now cannot move forward until my wife is here. Added to this there are all the extra uncertainties around health and travel caused by the pandemic. If I was to fall ill, who would look after my daughter? If Riekje got sick, who would be there for her in Madrid?

At the 10 week mark UKVI wrote to us asking if I could confirm that I was employed on the day Riekje submitted her application and we replied with a letter from my employer within a few hours (although I’m fairly sure the sponsor’s employment on biometrics day is not one of the criteria for the approval of an EUSS Family Permit). At the 12 week mark we tried to call UKVI and spent more than 8 hours on hold, listening to “please wait”, but we simply could not get through.

Friends, the UK has withdrawn freedoms that they’d previously worked for and encouraged their citizens to take. The evidence we now need to provide to validate our marriage and life in Europe, the long waits, the generic correspondence, needing to pay for calls to Entry Clearance and the frequent discourteousness of UKVI staff, if and when we can get through, leaves me with the feeling I’ve done something wrong for falling in love and staying in love with a Dutch woman; that I should somehow be ashamed of living in Europe.

We pastored international churches in Lisbon and Madrid for 25 years and offered spiritual, social, family and other practical support to the large Expat communities that included many British Church members over the years. While exercising our right to live in Europe we sought to be model citizens of the European Community and build a better world.

13 weeks later we’re still waiting for Riekje’s EUSS Family Permit to be approved. Last week my family and I attended a memorial service of an aunt in Kent, who’d been like a mother to me and my wife. My very large, very international, UK family was all there. But our Riekje was still stuck in Spain and could not attend and mourn with the family she’s been an integral part of for over 30 years. As a British Citizen I must say that I find the long waits, the lack of information, the challenges contacting Entry Clearance, the long separations of couples and families and the psychological and emotional stress that UKVI is causing me and many British families completely unacceptable.

Let’s be honest, the UK’s poor treatment of its own citizens is most certainly not “Making Britain Great Again”. Surely causing grief to British Citizens was never the intention of those who voted to leave. United Kingdom, please don’t ignore the fact that Riekje is the long-standing wife of a British Citizen and mother to four British Citizens and a welcome part of a “Big Fat British Family.” United Kingdom, please don’t forget that while you may have withdrawn to your Island Europe is still your neighbour.

Richard and Riekje Wallace

First published September 2021

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