Juliet Mupeni, 37, moved from Zimbabwe last May to work as a live-in carer. Her 13-year-old son has been refused a visa to join her in the UK.

Children barred from joining their mothers in Britain

Dozens of single women who came to work in the NHS and social care have been denied permission for their children to join them

Every day since arriving in Britain, Yvonne, a nurse in the NHS, has FaceTimed her two daughters back home in Zimbabwe. Often the calls end in tears. Other days, the younger girl, aged four, asks difficult questions like, “When can you send the aeroplane to come and get us, Mummy?” “It’s heartbreaking,” Yvonne says. “I don’t know what to do.”

Yvonne is one of dozens of migrant women who have been refused permission for their children to join them in Britain. Despite current rules permitting healthcare workers to bring family members, single mothers, many of them recruited to work in the NHS and care sector, are routinely having their applications denied.

The applications are being refused under a decades-old Home Office rule that a child may only be given a visa if both parents are living in the UK, unless the parent living here has sole responsibility. Many of the approximately 150 women who have come forward so far have supplied extensive evidence showing they are the children’s primary caregivers. But the applications have still been refused.

Yvonne says she moved to Britain to improve her family’s future. “We’re searching for greener pastures, to give our kids a better life,” the 34-year-old says. Before departing, she says, her employer reassured her that it should be simple enough for her daughters to join her.

So in March 2023 she left the girls in the temporary care of a nanny and boarded a flight. Two months later, after securing accommodation and starting her new job, she applied to the Home Office for the children’s visas.

Documents shared with the Observer show she explained that she had always cared for the girls, they had always lived with her, and supplied references from their schools, doctors and grandmother, along with consent letters from the other parent.

The application was rejected on the grounds that the girls could live with other relatives, and that Yvonne had not provided “compelling reasons” for them to come.

Ten months after she arrived, she is still battling the Home Office to reverse its decision. The girls are in the care of their grandparents, but Yvonne says this is not a long-term fix. “My parents are both in a bad position physically. They can’t carry the burden of looking after a four-year-old,” she says. “I have looked after my children all their lives. And now to be told I don’t have reason to live with them … that is the most painful thing.”

Another mother, Juliet Mupeni, said her 13-year-old son had been traumatised by the decision not to let him come. Mupeni, 37, a former university lecturer in cybersecurity, who moved from Zimbabwe in May to work as a live-in carer, supplied detailed evidence showing she is the boy’s sole caregiver, including a letter from the Zimbabwean authorities stating she has, and always has had, sole parental responsibility.

She also supplied letters from his school, doctor and church pastor, and a consent letter from the boy’s father, who she says she separated from a decade ago. But the Home Office rejected the application, questioning why the boy, who is staying with a family friend, couldn’t live with his dad.

Mupeni submitted a fresh application with further proof, but this, too, was refused. In a cruel twist, the rejection letter said the fact the child had been without his mother since she moved to Britain was proof he did not need to come. “My son feels I have abandoned him. After the second refusal he was very very emotional. He was crying for several days,” she says. “I moved here specifically for his future. If I thought he couldn’t join me I wouldn’t have come.”

In another case, a mother who was refused permission for her son to join her was told that as the boy’s father had contact with the child “occasionally and sporadically”, this was proof he could stay with him. The Home Office also said a letter saying the child’s grandmother had “chronic conditions” and could not care for the child long-term was not detailed enough, concluding there were no “compassionate and compelling circumstances” to grant the visa.

In other cases, women were asked to provide further evidence to support their applications so applied for court documents in their home countries. They had not needed them before as their separations or custody arrangements were informal. But the Home Office said that as the documents were dated recently, they had only been obtained for the purposes of securing a visa and refused the applications.

Carol, 39, a care worker also from Zimbabwe, who has been denied a visa for her 17-year-old daughter, said: “I don’t know why they are doing this. It is like we are not human beings. It’s like our families don’t mean as much as the families we are coming to look after.”

Lawyers and charities are calling for the cases to be reviewed, and the Home Office approach to be modernised, so that caseworkers give more weight to what is in the children’s best interests.

Current Home Office guidance does allow for exceptions, telling caseworkers that even if the sole responsibility test is not met, they can still allow visas if there are compassionate grounds to do so.

It explicitly says that a consent letter from the other parent would count in favour of their case. Yet many of the women providing such evidence are still having their children’s visas declined. Applicants can apply for a review but these can be costly, take several months and look only at whether administrative errors were made.

Sacha Wooldridge, head of immigration at law firm Birketts, said the sole responsibility test was intended to protect the other parent’s rights, but that it did not recognise “today’s modern society” and could be a “very blunt instrument”.

The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association says the “sole responsibility” test is “completely out of step with current best practice”. Last year, the cross-party peers on the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs committee said the policy was tearing apart families and should be revised.

Another mother, Amara, who moved from South Africa to Cheshire to work as a live-in carer, urged the Home Office to review the decisions and “show compassion”.

She has been fighting since July for her daughters, 12 and 14, to join her. “When I heard about the UK needing healthcare workers I thought, ‘OK, I would love to go and help out there.’ But it feels like the UK doesn’t care about us,” she said. “I would love the Home Office to be considerate and empathetic. I would ask them to put themselves in my shoes.” – www.theguardian.com

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