The Long Road to British Citizenship

I never intended to become British — not when I flew out of Australia towards the UK and not when I landed in this lush green country. Not even when I was granted a resident visa.

I arrived in the UK with a two-year working-holiday visa back in 2004. I was lucky — I was ‘old’ to be travelling. A change to visa policy that year increased the age group able to apply for a working-holiday stint in Britain. So, at the grand old age of 28, I was able to apply for the opportunity to visit a country I had spent much of my childhood romanticising about. Most of my contemporaries had already travelled overseas and spent time in the UK. I was behind and ahead of them. I’d married young. When my marriage ended in divorce, I figured it was time to go back to plan ‘A’: see the world and travel to the UK.

Photo by Frank Vessia on Unsplash

Making my way to the UK

When travelling halfway around the world, it makes sense to see a few of the bits in between. I spent time in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal. I had also planned to spend a month or so in India, but this changed when I let myself be scammed in Nepal (a story for another time) and I only spent a day or two in Delhi.

I figured that my head would spin at the different cultures of South East Asia — and it did. The languages, sights, sounds, and smells are something that this Aussie girl had only ever imagined, and not particularly accurately. I was lucky enough to travel from south to north and back again in Thailand. Across Cambodia to see Anchor Wat, visit some of Oxfam’s projects and explore the national parks. Vietnam delivered some hair-raising rides and beautiful cultural experiences. Nepal was a whirlwind of ups and downs. Not once did I feel completely at ease. Still, this beautiful place gave me fond memories of the people I met, the cities I explored, and awe-inspiring foothills of the Himalayas.

So many of my friends had made a trip like this before me; I assumed that when I landed in England it would be a little like home so I’d feel more comfortable. This wasn’t the case. My boyfriend picked me up from the airport and took me south of the Thames. London was bigger and stranger than I imagined. As much as I loved the English accent, people spoke, thought, and behaved so differently to home. The buildings and parks similar to home were sandwiched between English architecture of varying eras and not a cobbled street in sight! Enid Blyton, Dr Who, and Grange Hill had led me a merry dance. It left me feeling homesick and bemused that I could’ve been so naïve.

Adjusting to English life

After a few weeks getting to grips with where I was and searching for work, I landed a job in Brighton, moved to the south coast and away from London. I’m not a city girl and don’t think I could be happy in a never-turns-off-town like London. Hastings became home for the next two years.

Our little apartment on West Hill overlooked the channel, providing endless views of the sea and far away horizon. An hour commute to Brighton by train had me at work. Those two years passed quickly and slowly. I visited parts of Europe, explored York, London and Brighton. I worked with a charity and made friends I wasn’t sure I’d keep. I spent a long weekend in Paris and took a hard-to-remember break in Amsterdam. Before I knew it, two years had passed and it was time to head back to Australia or try to stay in the UK with my boyfriend.

Hastings — winter 2005. Authors own image

I’d been through an immigration process back home with my ex-husband (also a Brit) and complying with the requirements of an application to remain in the UK was not a prospect I relished. The Australian immigration department is not known for its welcoming attitude to immigrants of any kind. Form filling, gathering paperwork, and submitting to invasive interviews by immigration officers is not for the faint of heart. All the same, saying good-bye forever to my English boyfriend was even less attractive. And so, the long process of staying in the same country as the man I loved began.

Limited Leave to Remain

My boyfriend sponsored me for a two year, Limited Leave to Remain visa. We’d gotten together in Australia and agreed to meet up in the UK to ‘see if things would work out’. If it hadn’t have been for this, there is no way that I could’ve stayed in the UK, no matter how great our love was or how much I was prepared to spend on immigration fees. It is not a cheap process.

Fortunately for us, we were able to prove we’d been a couple for more than two years. After one nail-biting moment trying to prove we were still a couple while I was gallivanting around the globe (Thank God for email and a man who never throws things away!), I was granted ‘Limited Leave to Remain’. Basically a two-year extension to the visa I arrived with.

Limited Leave to Remain (LLR) visas generally give the holder permission to work and live in the UK, including the freedom to travel in and out of the country during that period. After the time is up, LLR visa holders are expected to head home or apply for the next step in staying — an Unlimited Leave to Remain visa, or what is more commonly referred to as a resident visa.

There are no further checks or restrictions on LLR visa holders or at least there weren’t any back then. I remember thanking the immigration officer when I was granted my visa and asking him who I should notify of my new address. We were planning to move house within the month.

He laughed. “Oh-ho-ho! There is no need to do that! We don’t care where you go now. Just come back in two years and apply again if you want to stay longer.”

“Don’t you need to know where I am?” I said, “In case I over-stay?”

“No Ma’am, that is all. You don’t need to do anything further than return in two years.”

I thanked him and we left. I couldn’t believe it. In Australia, anyone on a limited visa has to keep the immigration department up to date on their address. If someone overstays their visa, immigration arrives at a god-awful hour of the morning, hauls them into a divisional van and carts them off to a detention centre. From there, they’re sent back to whence they came. I’ve had personal experience of this with my ex-husband.

Australia is quite keen to kick people out if they are deemed ‘unwelcome’. It would be fair to say Australia is infamous for their immigration policies — not something that I am personally proud of as an ex-pat.

Unlimited Leave to Remain

The next two years were spent with more travel, finding a new job near the university where my boyfriend studied for his Master’s Degree and settling further into UK life. The two years flew by. Things still felt foreign; although I cannot count the number of times I have been told I am not an immigrant ‘like the rest of them’.

Although this is said in a way that I suppose is meant to make me feel accepted, it’s no comfort.

I came to the UK from about as far away as is possible. Although Australia is a commonwealth nation, it’s not a part of England. Just because I speak English doesn’t mean I see the world in the same way as a Brit. When someone tells me ‘you’re not really an immigrant’, what they really mean is ‘you’re white and you speak the same language. You look like me and sound like me, so I’m prepared to accept you in my country.’

It’s offensive. It’s a subtle form of racism. Although I’m Australian, I’m not down with that racist view of the world. We’re all different and it’s those differences that make us beautiful, interesting, and wonderful. The multiple differences between the people in our societies anywhere create the gorgeous fabric of our cultures. Immigrants should be celebrated and accepted regardless of colour, language, or other differences.

For someone who comes from a country so far from the rest of the world, England is amazing. Where I lived, it took a flight of at least four hours to get outside the bounds of my country. Here, EVERYTHING IS SO CLOSE! A trip to Europe, across to Africa, or up to Iceland is just so fast and easy. Historical and culturally significant places are around almost every corner. The past sits comfortably alongside the present and future. It’s an astounding and wonderful place. I took advantage and did as much exploring as I could.

Holiday snaps — Authors own image

Unlimited Leave to Remain was not a simple hurdle though. More than just filling out a form and verifying my compliance with the law and immigration rules there were tests and checks.

I had to prove I understood what it meant to be British by studying for and then passing a ‘Living in the UK’ test. The test covered British history, everyday law (traffic, tax, and voting rights), sports, and culture. It even required me to understand the benefits system and memorise the average weekly pocket money children are given in the UK (£5 per week, if you were wondering). I studied and took practise tests with my boyfriend. More often than not, I would pass and he wouldn’t. It’s a good thing he didn’t have to prove he knew what it was to be British.

My employer had to verify I worked for them and that they intended to keep me employed for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, as I come from an English speaking country, I didn’t have to do a language test. I have read that this is fraught with error and needless stress for those who do need to prove they can speak an acceptable level of English. The application itself and the tests all come with their own cost too. As I said earlier, the process of immigration is not cheap.

After an agonising few months waiting for my application to be processed, it was approved. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that I could now stay in the UK unmolested for the rest of my life. As long as I didn’t leave the UK for a period longer than two years, I could stay living and working here as the rest of Britain’s citizens. I wasn’t able to vote in some elections, but aside from that, I was a part of the UK’s rich social fabric.

Or so I thought.

A hostile environment for immigrants

Life went on quite happily. My boyfriend and I moved again and began our family. In 2010 our first son was born. Thanks to having an Australian mum and English dad he was granted dual nationality rather easily.

It was also around this time that a Liberal-Conservative government came to power in the UK. Earlier that year, my friend was sent back to Australia after submitting her application to continue living in the UK, two days after the cut-off date. She’d been living and working in the UK for six years.

In 2013, my second son was born. Things for immigrants in the UK started to heat up. The English public was turning against the immigrants that had helped rebuild their country after the war. They were turning against the European migrants that helped to staff their hospitals, run their postal service and carry out all manner of work in support of their economy. Things were getting uncomfortable for anyone from a non-British background that needed social assistance or just wanted to take a holiday across borders.

The Conservatives launched their ‘hostile environment’ policy for The Home Office. UKIP began to gain support around the country. Nigel Farage began berating the state of the country and laying the blame for all manner of ills at the feet of immigrants.

In 2014, my Australian passport expired and although my residency visa was still valid, I now had to carry both my expired passport and renewed passport if I planned to travel outside of the UK, or look for a new job. Employers were wary of employing me because of my status. It would’ve cost me around £100 to have the visa transferred to my new passport. I was busy raising my young family, starting to work seriously as a freelance writer and had no plans to travel, so it wasn’t a big deal right then.

In 2015, stories began to appear in the news about people in similar circumstances to mine being asked to leave the UK, or denied entry after short breaks outside the UK. The fact that they had spent more of their lives in the UK than their home countries was a moot point. Visas proving they had a valid claim to enter were ignored. Families were being torn apart against a political landscape that chose to blame the people who had, in some cases, been invited to make England their home, in others, allowed in and vetted before being granted the right to become part of UK society and culture.

By 2017 there was at least one story in the papers each week — usually more — detailing the injustice that was being served to immigrants in the UK. The Windrush scandal broke in the news. Stories of people born in the UK to legal immigrant parents being deported to the country of their relatives became common. Mothers, fathers, and grandfathers being put into detention centres because they couldn’t prove their legality to immigrate with their parents when they were kids became almost as common. Hundreds of people who had thought of the UK as their home were finding that the country was spurning them. The Home Office was binning records that should’ve stopped any of this happening. Records they had been entrusted to keep.

My boyfriend and our boys wanted to visit family in France, but I was too scared to leave the UK. They might not have let me back in. I could have been asked to return to Australia — a home I hadn’t even visited for at least six years by then. A home that wouldn’t have let my partner come with me without another massive immigration process. I spent the next year reading more and more stories in the news of people who had lost their homes and families in the UK to the hostile environment policy. Many had to pay for lawyers and applications to return or remain in a country they had thought of as theirs.

The final straw — citizenship

I decided the only way to know that I would be able to stay in England with my family, was to apply for UK citizenship. Become a Brit. The process involved compiling lots of documentation and paying over £1,300 to submit an application to the immigration department. I gathered the test results from my visa application in 2008. I found birth, marriage and divorce certificates, visa dates and application numbers. I applied for my tax history from HMRC and submitted it all with my biometric data, the payment, and a prayer.

Despite being told by many people here “You’ll be fine. You’re not really an immigrant anyway — not like the others.” I wondered what would happen if my application was rejected. I worried that this could mean moving to Australia with my boys; then going through the immigration process there for their Dad to be able to come too join us.

At the beginning of 2019, my application was accepted and approved. On March 31st, 2019 — the day Britain was first supposed to leave the EU — I swore allegiance to the Queen, her heirs, and was handed my UK citizenship certificate by the Mayor of Exeter.

Becoming British — Author’s image

A tale of two countries

I recognise that I am fortunate to be here in the UK. Many, many people have tougher stories than the one I have just told. Many people have little choice about leaving their country of birth behind.

I now have dual nationality, as do my two boys. Australia doesn’t insist on someone giving up their nationality to become a citizen elsewhere and neither does the UK.

Immigration isn’t something that people do lightly. It’s not cheap, or easy. Nor is it a comfortable ride integrating and becoming part of a foreign culture — no matter how much that new culture seems similar to yours.

Starting somewhere new always has its challenges. Starting life in a new country even more so; it takes grit, courage and determination. People might move countries for a better life, for love, for work, for freedom. But whatever the reason, they have to work at this new life to make it a reality, to create a place for themselves in an alien landscape. These people make societies stronger, richer and more vibrant. They bring new life and new perspectives to the places they choose to make their homes.

Immigrants shouldn’t be welcomed with a hostile environment. They shouldn’t be met with scorn or blamed for a country’s political or economic hardship. Immigrants should be welcomed for all that they bring and for helping our societies be the kinds of places that we like to live.

Written by

Freelance writer using Medium to explore ideas that interest me. https://mailchi.mp/61e09e43dd3a/vicwomersleysubscription or get in touch vicwomersley@gmail.com

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