When SIG was set up in 1993, there was no provision for a foreign person from
outside the EU to live with their same-sex partner in the UK or for a person to
seek asylum in the UK on grounds that they feared homophobic persecution back home.
"The group was initially formed," explains Watson, "when gay people facing separation
refused to enter into bogus heterosexual marriages of convenience just to stay
in the country. They took on the Home Office. SIG not only changed the law within
a few years but - more importantly - until that time, kept every couple who
applied in the way it suggested together. Not a single member was deported."
Indeed, unmarried straight couples had always been able to get married to gain
entry for the overseas partner. Thanks to lobbying from SIG, an Unmarried Partners
Concession was eventually introduced in 1997 allowing a foreign person from outside
the EU to live with their same-sex partner in the UK if the relationship had
demonstrably existed for four years (reduced to two years in 1999) and if the
entrant would not require welfare. This 'Concession' was upgraded to become a 'Rule'
Application periods now range from same-day in straightforward cases to 6 -12 months
with complications and appeals. Watson advises couples to take legal advice in all
but the most simple of cases: "The worst thing a couple can do is to make a poor
application which is doomed to fail, or put themselves in a position where they
are illegally in the country, so breaching the immigration laws."
"Many couples struggle to find ways to physically stay together for the required
two years," he explains. "However the cohabitation does not have to be in the UK
and it is often possible to find ways to legally build up the required period
overseas - couples might even take a long holiday together."
He continues positively: "Unlike many countries, the UK Home Office will not refuse
an application because someone has HIV. Indeed, in cases that do not meet the
criteria, it might even be useful to mention positive status - especially if the
foreign partner is on treatment not available back home."
If an application is successful, the entrant is put on a further two-year probationary
period - with most domestic and travel rights granted but still with no recourse
to welfare benefits - after which an assessment may grant settled status and so
on to British citizenship if sought. Additionally, in February 2002, the Home Office
ruled that all proven unmarried relationships of five years or more, gay or straight,
could apply for immediate residency, without the two-year probation.
At the last count SIG had almost two thousand people on its database and it has
helped several hundred couples stay together and settle. It still holds monthly
meetings, as well as offering telephone advice from volunteers and solicitors and
hosting a highly useful website.
And SIG has not just supported same-sex partners. A House of Lords ruling in 1999
forced the government, for the first time, to consider claims for asylum from those
fearing persecution because of their sexuality. The Home office now judges each case
on its merit, assessing the homophobia present within the country in question and
the authenticity of the individual claimant.
"The major role for SIG now is to inform and support," concludes Watson. "However,
there is still some campaigning to do. The only way we will achieve full equality
is when lesbians and gays can marry. It is still true that a straight couple can
just meet, marry a week later and then apply to remain whereas gay couples have
a two year wait. If the Home Office treat the proposed Partnership Register the
same as marriage this may help, but we'll have to wait and see what the terms are."
Stonewall Immigration Group