She is married to a Briton, has lived here almost 30 years and raised a family here. Yet Irene Clennell found herself deported from the UK last week.
Irene met John Clennell in London in the late 1980s. In 1990, they got married in the city before settling in his native north east.
Here, they have since lived a happy existence – raising two sons, John and Sonny – albeit one interrupted, in recent years, by frequent trips by Irene back to her native Singapore, to help her sick parents, and by the serious illness suffered by her husband, who she has had to increasingly care for.
This week, though, that care stopped. For Irene is now separated from her husband by 6,700 miles, having been forcibly removed from the UK by the British state last Sunday and deported to Singapore.
The root of the family’s problems is those trips back to Singapore. Upon marrying John, Irene had been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. But those interruptions away from their Chester-le-Street home, combined with new spousal visa requirements, introduced in 2012 – more than two decades after their London wedding – saw her right to remain invalidated.
Over the years, she had spent long periods in Singapore, including stints caring for her parents, who have both since died. But when she flew back in to the UK after one trip, in 2013, she was told by immigration officials that the period of time she had spent overseas broke the terms of her original residency.
It meant she had to re-enter, effectively as a new arrival, and be judged under the new rules, which included a minimum earnings requirement for her husband of £18,600. The onset of several chronic conditions, however, meant he had to give up work as a gas fitter. Her long marriage and family was irrelevant to her case. Her fate was sealed.
From then on, she had to rely on a travel visa to stay in the country, as she tried to secure permanent leave to remain. When this visa expired, in 2014, she was forced to make fortnightly visits to immigration offices in Middlesbrough to sign forms allowing her to stay.
For these trips, she was driven to and from the centre by her sister-in-law Angela. Then, after one visit, in January, Irene didn’t return to the car. Instead, with no warning, she was taken by officers to a detention centre in Dungavel, South Lanarkshire, where she was held for a month.
Then, last Sunday, she was placed on a plane heading to Singapore – with just the clothes she was wearing and £12 in cash – and having had only a fleeting phone call to John to explain what was going on. She was, she says, so shocked and upset she could barely speak to him.
Now staying with her sister in a cramped flat in Singapore, the 53-year-old grandmother – she has a ten-month-old granddaughter, as well as sons, 27 and 25, back in the north east of England – accepts a large part of the blame for her extraordinary predicament.
Her mistake was a simple – understandable – one, of ignorance: she had no idea that, despite her marriage, there were restrictions on the amount of time she could spend out of the UK. The time limit is actually two years. Heartbreakingly, had she known, she could have returned home from Singapore sooner. Her right to remain would have been unaffected. Just as heartbreakingly, during the intervening years she could have applied for citizenship. But since her status did not appear at risk, she simply never got round to it.
The extreme response of the Government has been, she says, ‘inhumane, 100%’. Beyond that, though, she is anxious to avoid antagonising British officials – or politicians – who she believes may yet allow her to return, and remains vehemently pro-British.
‘It would be easy for me to just blame Theresa May – but it is not that simple,’ she says. ‘I know I have made the mistake. I admit that. But it was not on purpose and it is not because I am a bad person.
‘My treatment has been inhumane, 100%. But I can’t blame any one single person or the Government. The rules are there for a reason but for me they have been unfair this time. I agree that I made an error, a mix-up in not knowing the rules but I have a very ill husband and I need to care for him.
‘All I am doing by speaking out is defending myself in the hope that I can return to the UK to care for John. I am simply requesting Theresa May’s help, not accusing her of anything. But I am very frustrated and very worried.
‘The most important thing I feel I must do in life is care for my family. What is happening is stopping me from doing that. It’s the only reason I need to be in the UK – nothing more.
‘I am very sad that I believe my children think I have left them behind. I don’t want them to think I have just left. That is very upsetting that I have been forced so far away from them. But they are grown-up and they are healthy and they can now look after themselves. John can’t. Before I had to go I was doing almost everything for him. I was putting his shoes on and bathing him – caring for him 24 hours a day.’
Indeed, before she was detained, Irene was effectively full time carer for her husband. In her absence, he is likely to have to rely more on the state, and the public purse.
‘The last time I saw him in the detention centre in Dungavel on February 24 he did not look well,’ she said. ‘He was trying to be brave and battle through but he was very ill.
‘Now I worry all the time about how he is coping. I know he has family and they will be looking after him but I should be there to care for him – I haven’t slept in days worrying about it.’
Her phlegmatic attitude towards the system that has dumped her in Singapore is all the more surprising because, when she touched down at the city’s Changi Airport, she was told that the authorities in the UK had stated on her deportation notice that she had been ‘violent’ and ‘disruptive’ – claims she very vehemently denies. She has also been told that, if the letter of the law is followed absolutely, she could face a 10-year travel ban to Britain because she was removed at the public’s expense.
Yet her muted response, in terms of criticism of the Government, is partly inspired by her patriotism, and she remains proud to call herself British.
Her strong attachment for the country was instilled in her by her father, James, who died in 2008.
When she was a girl he would regale her with stories of how he had served alongside the British Army when it returned to Singapore at the end of the Second World War. To mark his service he was awarded a medal.
‘He used to always say ‘the Queen gave me a medal’ – he loved the UK and was proud of his time with the British Army. He would always tell me how great the UK was but now I think he would be very upset with the country,’ Irene adds.
‘None of that really matters to me now though – all I can focus on is my husband and getting back to him.’
Back in County Durham, sister-in-law Angela is mounting a campaign to force the Home Office to reverse the decision. And whereas Irene is guarded and concerned about launching an all-out attack on the Government, Angela is not.
‘It is disgusting,’ she said. ‘You don’t imagine that someone who has been married to a Briton for all those years and has two children and a life here could just be chucked out.
‘She kept applying for her visa when it became clear there was an issue and it just kept being denied – we thought there must be an error and it would be sorted out in the end.
‘The strain on her is immense – her husband is very sick but now, of course, she cannot care for him. Her sons are beside themselves.
‘We blame the Government absolutely. How can they take a lovely woman who has never done anything wrong, been married for all those years and deport her? And they claim on the form she is violent? It’s ridiculous.
‘The only thing we can do is fight to get this turned over – that’s why we are raising money to fight her case.
‘If this can happened to Irene it is just the tip of the iceberg. This Government will start deporting lots more innocent people who are simply victims of circumstances or mix-ups.’
And this, surely, is the point. Irene’s extraordinary case was set in motion long before the EU referendum and the current focus on immigration issues.
‘But it does shine a light on what we can increasingly expect from the Hard Brexit-obsessed Government, which seems to have elevated concerns about immigration above all else.
The new 2012 rules were brought in while Theresa May was Home Secretary, as she tried to deliver on promises to cut net migration. In a speech that year, she said the family visa reforms and other changes were a response to ’13 years of uncontrolled mass immigration’.
By that logic, Irene, then celebrating her 22nd wedding anniversary, was never an intended target. But that has not mattered one jot to the Home Office. Its response to her case is curt: ‘All applications for leave to remain in the UK are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. We expect those with no legal right to remain in the country to leave.’
And it is these words which should send a chill through many other UK residents who were not born here.
In the five years since the changes were introduced, and four years since Irene first found herself caught up in the system, the focus on immigration has grown exponentially.
It was, without doubt, a central issue in the Brexit debate. But since the vote, it seems to have been taken by the Theresa May Government as the referendum’s defining issue. Leaving aside whether those people who raised concerns about immigration really had in mind the deportation of a grandmother, separated from her husband of almost 30 years, it is quite clear that ministers are taking the opportunity to make the UK a less welcoming place for immigrants.
The Government still refuses to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Ministers argue this would denude them of a useful negotiating ploy but say, also, that securing their rights is one of their top priorities, once Brexit talks begin with European leaders. But, reading Irene’s story, who can take them at their word? If she can be deported, how can any other foreign-born residents feel safe?
Hers is a story which has had only cursory media coverage thus far – for much of Fleet Street, their agenda is better served by beating the same anti-immigration drum as the Government. But there is evidence of public sympathy. Since her plight emerged, around £50,000 has been donated to the fund set up by the family to secure her better legal representation.
For now though Irene has to wait. ‘I have no idea what the chances are or even what I can do next,’ she said. ‘I have put my case to the Government and it has not made any impact at all. I don’t know what to do next and I have no idea if I’ll ever be allowed back.
‘I won’t beg the Government. I won’t plead. I just want them to know that I need to care for my husband and I should be with my family – that is all I ask, that is all I want.’
The fundraising web page can be found at www.gofundme.com/bringirenehome.