When I left Britain to start a job in Singapore, all I took with me was a rucksack. I didn’t expect to be away for all that long; just enough time to pay off some debts and get the necessary experience to open a few doors for me back home.
But then, as tends to happen, I met someone.
Now, I’m married and have a nine-year-old, a house and a car, but home is not London. It’s Kuala Lumpur, and my family is Malaysian.
As more young people travel to study and work, and the Internet brings together individuals who might never have met in the pre-web world, so the number of marriages between people of different nationalities is rising, creating a policy challenge for governments worried about migration and leaving newlyweds to negotiate frequently restrictive — and often opaque — processes that will allow them to live and work in the same country and perhaps lead to citizenship.
Based on data from 30 countries in 2010, Eurostat estimated one in 12 marriages in Europe were between people of different nationalities. In Switzerland, it was about one in five, compared with about one in 11 in the UK and hardly any at all in Romania. In Australia, nearly one in three marriages in 2014 was mixed. In Singapore, where the number of marriages in 2014 was the highest since 1997, transnational marriages accounted for 37% of those unions up from 23% in 2003. And the US Census Bureau revealed that in 2011, in 21% of married households in America, at least one of the spouses was born outside the US.
Difficult road travelled
Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist, met her husband, Calum Stuart, when she was studying for a postgraduate degree in the UK. They got married near his hometown in Scotland in 2014. Neither family nor friends imagined the bureaucracy they would encounter simply trying to live together.
“There’s so much that’s taken for granted,” Han said on the phone from Singapore where they are currently living. “Everyone said, ‘Just get married and everything will be solved’. It came as a bit of a shock when we realised that was not the case.”
It was the British government’s new incomes rules — introduced in 2012 with the aim of weeding out what officials said were “sham” marriages — that made it impossible for the couple to settle in the UK. The regulations require the British citizen, who has to act as a sponsor for their non-EU spouse, to have an income of £18,600 ($26,700) a year, or savings of £60,000 ($86,000) more if they have children. The rule has been blamed for creating a swathe of families who can be together only on Skype and sending some citizens into exile.
Han and Stuart decided to go to Singapore, where spouses are usually issued a one-year visit pass that allows them to work, because they felt it gave them a chance to be together, but even that hasn’t proved as straightforward as the couple had hoped.
“It wears you down,” Han said. “Why do I have to try so hard to have my husband live with me in my country?”
Despite economic policies that encourage the globalisation that make transnational marriages inevitable, young couples like Han and Stuart, and people who’ve been married for years, have become unexpected victims of hardening attitudes towards migration.
“There has been increasing stress on ‘managed migration’ by governments to try to maximise economic benefits from migration, and control types of migration not seen as so beneficial,” Katharine Charsley, an academic at the University of Bristol, said by email. Spouses who migrate are selected as a matter of the heart, “rather than selected for their skills to fill shortage occupations by the state”.
In Europe, the Netherlands has introduced an “integration abroad exam” to test Dutch language skills and cultural knowledge, as does the UK, and Denmark has a “combined attachment” rule under which couples must prove their attachment to Denmark is greater than their attachment to the foreign spouse’s country, determined partly on the time spent living in each and expertise in Danish.
In the US, where migration is a hot-button election issue, newlywed couples have to provide a multitude of documentation to show their marriage is genuine in order to secure a temporary green card that is valid for two years, after which they can apply for permanent residence.
The bait and switch
In other countries, it can seem at first like it’s easy to stay, but being able to do so permanently and legally, as the foreign spouse of a citizen, can end up taking years.
Like Singapore, Malaysia offers a one-year pass. After five years, the spouse can apply for settlement, known as permanent residence, which allows doctors and other professionals to practice and enables people to apply for loans, open a business and buy any sort of home, but there is no guidance on when it might be granted. Since 2008, they’ve been allowed to work, but that requires an additional endorsement from immigration and a job offer.
Bina Ramanand, who arrived in Malaysia from India to live with her husband in 1992, was first able to stay because she got a job in Kuala Lumpur that entitled her to an expatriate pass. She got the spouse pass when it was introduced a few years later, but it wasn’t until 2007 she was deemed eligible to apply for settlement. The stress, she said, almost drove her back to India.
“I’d given up on permanent residence,” said Ramanand, who heads the Foreign Spouses Support Group to help non-Malaysian spouses, and was finally granted permanent residence in 2013. “I thought I’d only get it when I was dead.”
In the name of love
Robert Pedrin, 37, arrived in Malaysia in 2012 and knows the stress well. The computer-networking graduate was determined to meet Carrie, 41, a recruitment consultant in Penang and the woman who had captured his heart on Facebook.
Since the US had rejected her application for a visa to attend his graduation in San Diego, he decided he would fly to Malaysia instead and ended up staying. In April 2014, six years after they first connected online, they married.
“I knew she was the one,” Pedrin said. “There are 7 billion people on this planet and my soul mate was 8,800 miles away.”
Now on his second long-term visit pass, he hasn’t been able to find work because many employers don’t understand that spouses can work legally and are reluctant to hire them. Opening a bank account, buying a car and other things Pedrin “took for granted in the US” are difficult. He has taken to blogging about his experiences, but he doesn’t regret anything.
“If I was able to transport myself back to 2012, knowing what I know now, I would do it all again,” he said. Other couples should be familiar with the rules in the country where they want to settle, make sure they have all the proper documentation, and persevere. “There is nothing that can get in the way of true love.”
Open to the right ‘talent’
Despite all the bureaucracy surrounding foreign spouses, many countries are extremely welcoming to what they call “foreign talent” or “highly-skilled” people. The “brightest and the best” as British Home Secretary Theresa May put it in a 2010 speech announcing more restrictive migration policies.
Malaysia is also becoming more open to talent. In 2011, the government introduced a 10-year residence pass giving those who met the qualifications — that is, people who had already been working in the country for three years as an expat and were earning more than 12,000 Malaysian ringgit ($3,070) a month — the opportunity to work for whomever they wanted (it also allows their spouses to work). Foreign spouses are among the 4,000 people, including me, issued passes since launch.
The foreign spouses of highly-qualified Malaysians returning from years overseas under a special brain-gain programme are also given PR within six months. About a fifth of the 3,700 people who’ve returned so far have non-Malaysian partners.
As we’ve seen in many countries, immigration policies are managed according to economic conditions,” said Johan Mahmood Merican, who co-ordinates the programmes as CEO of government agency TalentCorp and is married to a Singaporean. “Where there are skills we will definitely facilitate. Spouses will always be given an advantage. The government does recognise the status of a foreigner married to a Malaysian.”
Malaysia is perhaps unusual in the lack of transparency about the process of settlement. Many other countries, even those requiring copious amounts of documentation and imposing language tests and cultural quizzes, explain the process and the length of time it’s likely to take.
Even though Talent Corp’s Johan said spouses are welcome, the uncertainty surrounding their immigration status leaves many wondering whether the place they call home is really home at all.
“It’s the people who lose out,” said Ramanand. “The Malaysian spouse, the Malaysian children; it’s the Malaysian family that is disadvantaged.”