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Love Beyond Borders

How will the hardening of immigration policies affect the radical potential of romance?

Worldwide, we now have the highest level of displaced people in recorded history, 68.65 million according to the UN Refugee Agency. With borders hardening around the world, more people than ever are taking on the slippery, often tortuous challenge of proving their relationships to the authorities, which often boils down to having their love recognised as legitimate by the state. I’m one of them, or fear I soon will be.

Last summer I got engaged to my partner, a Greek national. We bid the blue skies of Athens goodbye and moved permanently back to London. I can’t pretend that Brexit had nothing to do with it. Yes, our commitment to each other is an act of two souls, a gesture towards the infinite. But when it comes to ‘this world and the next’, our decision is very much of this one. While civil partnerships might be acknowledged in the EU (where the ECHR’s ‘right to respect of private and family life’ also covers unmarried couples), the easiest route to security and recognition is getting hitched.

It’s a world where bumbling technocrats bray about unicorns and metaphorical cake while the UK inches slowly towards the precipice of leaving the European Union on 29th March without a deal. The British government has provided assurances that they’ll protect the rights of the 3.5 million EU citizens currently residing on these islands like my partner, but I don’t trust a word of it. After all, it’s the current Prime Minister who, as Home Secretary in 2010, decided to put a price on love – £18,600 per year to be exact. Anyone earning below that minimum can’t bring a foreign spouse into the country. But don’t worry, if you’re wealthy enough you can still study, or be a homemaker, or whatever you want. All you need is a paltry £62,500 in cash savings.

None of this should be a shock. The deeply unsettling feeling that I may be treated as a second-class citizen in my own country, that my rights and those of my partner may be curtailed or withdrawn, is the norm for vast swathes of the population. Wake up, I hear you say. Look around. Read some history. But ‘we’ never thought it would happen to ‘us.’ After the EU referendum, white privileged Westerners like me are having to confront the fact that our citizenship may not be enough – or perhaps enough for us but not for our loved ones.

Our most enduring love stories are all about bridging divides. Romeo and Juliet, The Little Mermaid, Pretty Woman…  In these stories romantic passion overcomes various kinds of differences – whether family, race, nationality, class or even species. As Juliet says of her Romeo, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Our favourite fridge-magnets say it all. This is the ‘power of love:’ its capacity to bring two people together in spite of society’s arbitrary barriers; and also the ‘blindness of love’ – the besotted’s capacity to see through to the inner truth of the Other.

This capacity has always been political. Love, as an irrational and unifying force is dangerous to those who wish to maintain rule-bound divisions between demographics. One of the most moving voices on the politics of love is James Baldwin, a man whose lifework was inseparable from his wrestling with the distinctions of sexual and racial identity. It takes strength to break down the walls of the self and society in order to encounter the beloved. “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” Baldwin writes. He describes it as a “state of grace” which demands “a tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

For most of Baldwin’s life inter-racial marriages were forbidden, and he never got to see gay marriage. Whatever your approach to this institution, marriage is the primary mechanism by which societies have traditionally sought to limit the transgressive power of love. Now, in the United States, you can get married to a person of any race, nationality or gender – but not if they don’t have the right papers.

In the US, the institution of marriage has traditionally been a ‘golden loophole.’ Undocumented immigrants married to American citizens were rarely deported under President Obama, but Trump has upended this consensus. Marriage in America, as in Britain, is no longer enough to guarantee the right to live with your spouse. Apparently President Trump has no qualms about tearing married couples apart, even if he eventually relented on his devastating policy of family separation.

The Washington Post recently posted a short film showing the effects of the travel ban more than two years after it was first enacted against seven Muslim-majority countries. The film follows two estranged married couples. At one point a young American woman who got married to her Iranian partner more than two years ago and is agonisingly awaiting their re-union, answers the question ‘why him?’ Because, she says, “Our differences make up the other.”

The philosopher Michael Hardt has developed a politics of love that posits “love of the same” and “love of the neighbour,” which can function within certain kinds of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, against “love of the different” and “love of the stranger.”  Hardt is against the institution of marriage, the “bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the nuclear family.” Yet presumably, by the same logic he’d also be against the restriction of the rights of migrants or trans-national low-income couples to marry or have their marriage recognised by the state. The further we travel along this road, the more we are consigned to a culture that disparages “love of the different” and celebrates “love of the same.”

Of course, this is only the latest crack-down on the radical potential of love. It’s no surprise that LGBTQI+ groups have been some of the most vocal and active in supporting refugee and immigrant communities across Europe and the USA. It’s not only that queer asylum seekers often face insurmountable hurdles when asked to provide evidence of their life and relationships to their destination countries. This community also bring a broader understanding, born out of centuries of experience, of what it means for your choice of partner to be invisible, rejected or attacked by the state.

The policing of love, for migrants as for others deemed to be outsiders, is arguably as old as society itself. It’s just that the current refugee crisis is producing new and obscene results. The EU has recently set up Artificial Intelligence lie detectors in Greece, Latvia and Hungary in a trial worth 45 million Euros. Despite evidence that the technology may be ‘pseudo-scientific,’they are being used to interview immigrants and asylum seekers about many things, including their relationships. The results will count with other ‘proofs’ of true love, along with children’s birth certificates, marriage photos and even Facebook posts. The UK is being urged to employ these machines in order to halt “abuse of the asylum system” and spot “signs of deception.”

I heard some horrific Love Police stories while volunteering at a refugee school run by Palestinians in the centre of Athens. There was the Syrian salesman who discovered that his wife couldn’t join him because they’d been married by a Sheik (a significant proportion of the Syrian refugee population are married but lack official papers). There was the maddening account of the immigration officer who declared that an Afghani-Greek couple weren’t cohabiting because their doorbell didn’t bear both of their names (he never even bothered to ring).

Then again, there was also the British woman running the education program who had fallen in love with her Palestinian partner while volunteering in a refugee camp. Now she’s looking into moving with him to the UK, either by meeting or working around the £18,600 minimum income attached to partner sponsorship. They’ll find a way, or they’ll go elsewhere. While borders are closing down, the flow of people across the globe is also forging new connections.

For my part, I can testify to love as a pathway to radical empathy. I would never have engaged as profoundly with Athens and the people I met there without the connection I have with my partner.  I’m grateful that we were given that time, now that the future looks uncertain.

When we met in 2014 at a house party on a snowy night in Finsbury Park, when the EU referendum was just a glint in Nigel Farage’s eye, it never occurred to me to think about the future implications of my partner’s passport. I never imagined that we might be here now, amassing the requisite papers, obsessively refreshing the Brexit headlines.

How could I have predicted 2019? I was raised on the ‘Cool Britannia’ dream of frictionless globalisation. No-one could take away our rights to “workin, ravin, chattin, roamin” as the Remain campaign put it in a noxious video designed to encourage the ‘EasyJet generation’ to vote against separating ourselves from Europe. Behind this offer of Euro-rail and sunny jobs abroad was always the promise of foreign flings. Sex and love were supposed to be free.

But this was always a white-washed illusion, one that is being shaken now for ‘us’ Western white people who are having to question our assumption that our rights as citizens will be protected along with the rights of our loved ones. We’re having to taste the anxiety experienced by billions across the globe who have never been able to make such assumptions. Needless to say, there’s no equivalency here. In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, we can only attempt to grow our love.

Love trumps hate. Love against borders. These slogans aren’t only about extending compassion to the strangers around us, or the rights of couples to be together regardless of their passport or immigration status. They’re also about the basic human drive to come together across divides. We urgently need to harness this drive, whatever the future may bring.

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and fiction writer, published in Al Jazeera UK, VICE UK, the London Review of Books, the London Magazine, the New Humanist and others. At openDemocracy she has been Editor at OurKingdom (now oD UK), OurBeeb, and 50.50 (Interim Editor Jan-March 2017) and has co-edited two books: ‘Democratic Wealth: Building a Citizens’ Economy‘ and ‘Re-thinking the BBC: Public Media in the 21st Century‘. She lives in Athens, and is writing a novel.

(This article was originally published on openDemocracy and has been republished under the Creative Commons license.)

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