027 | For transnational families, lockdown has no end

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

The UK is reopening, but not transnational families. Visiting friends or relatives abroad is the second most frequent reason for foreign travel. It's about one in four trips out of the UK, twice the volume of business travel. Travel restrictions have reduced these trips to a trickle. For millions who love across borders, spending time together has been impossible for most of the past year. Even illegal.

Yet, media coverage of travel restrictions has had a near pathological focus on foreign holidays. This week, we hear the voices of those who wait, still, to reunite. With Arietta Deick, Mary Wooldridge Eligu, Jane Copland and Marion Specker

Show notes
00:00 Intro
04:03 Arietta Deick
06:04 Marion Specker
07:08 Mary Wooldridge Eligu
15:22 Jane Copland
20:03 Outro

Sources & credits
👀 International travel restrictions stop more than just holidays. My op-ed in The Independent.
🇳🇿 Our Side of the Clouds. Jane Copland for Entropy magazine, about the tensions between New Zealanders and their expats.

Music by Ofshane via Youtube’s audio library


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

Mary Eligu Wooldridge: [00:00:00] I think that's something a lot of British people don't understand that people do have families overseas and there is a need for some people to actually travel to see their families.

[00:00:14] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:25] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:29] This week, the United Kingdom, where I live, is starting to come back to life. 32 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Shops are reopening, outdoor pubs and restaurants too. I'll be getting my first haircut in four months. And families all over the country, grandparents vaccinated, kids finally allowed to travel, are reuniting. There's just one question left on everyone's mind.

[00:00:54] Press conference: [00:00:55] When do you think you'll be able to tell us if people can book a foreign holiday?

[00:00:59] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:59] That's if you listen to the British media, at least. They are obsessed.

[00:01:10] BBC: [00:01:10] Our headlines today. Hopes for foreign holidays.

[00:01:14] Sky News: [00:01:14] So what, what's the official advice from the government at the moment? Should people be booking foreign holidays?

[00:01:19] iTV: [00:01:19] Absolutely all overseas holidays are illegal.

[00:01:24] Sky News: [00:01:24] Level with the British public. Is there any prospect of a foreign holiday this summer?

[00:01:29] Isabelle Roughol: [00:01:29] My esteemed colleagues' fascination with foreign holidays is an amusing reminder that Brits love their country... until it comes to spending a summer here. I'm the last person to fault anyone for their wanderlust and while the focus on Spanish beaches is a tad reductive of the wonders of foreign travel, I am reassured that not everyone here is content with pulling up the drawbridge and shutting out the world.

[00:01:53] However it must be said: using foreign holidays as a synonym for international travel is a misnomer. It's not just inaccurate, it's frankly distressing for many. There is much more at stake than tourism when we closed borders.

[00:02:07] Beate: [00:02:07] Whenever you read anything about international travel, it goes "holidays. When can we go on holidays again?" I don't care about that. It's about, you know, meeting your friends and family, people you care about.

[00:02:21] Isabelle Roughol: [00:02:21] That's Beate. She's seen her partner in Germany just twice since the start of the pandemic. It's been six months now.

[00:02:28] Beate: [00:02:28] I don't really know what can be done. I just wish that somehow it would be recognized that it's not just holidays people want to go on, they don't just want to go two weeks into the sun or whatever. I mean, at least they could acknowledge that they are keeping people from each other and not just always say "you know what? Just don't go on holiday this year. Just stay in the country and do a staycation." That's not the point. Not for me at least.

[00:02:55] Isabelle Roughol: [00:02:55] That lack of acknowledgement is what's been baffling and hurtful to many. The toll is staggering. And the silence deafening.

[00:03:03] One in seven people in this country is foreign born. Another maybe 5 million British citizens, no one's really counting, live overseas some quick back of the envelope. Mass. Tell me the number of people in this country who loves someone on the other side of British borders is in the tens of millions. That's why visiting friends or relatives abroad is the second, most frequent reason for foreign travel after holidays. It's about one in four trips out of the UK, twice the volume of business travel.

[00:03:29] For these families and couples, spending time together has been impossible for most of the past year. For months, it's also been illegal. That's the British context, but you'll find the same stories repeated over and over again in most countries. This has left many people who like me, like you like millions, love across borders, feeling ignored or alienated from their governments, their media and the public at large.

[00:03:53] Today I wanted to make room for their voices and let them tell you in their own words, what the last year has been like. Their stories speak for many more.


[00:04:02] Arietta Deick

[00:04:02] Arietta Deick: [00:04:03] My name is Arietta and I live in Scotland. My partner Matej lives in Zagreb, in Croatia. And we've now been separated for nine months with no end in sight.

[00:04:15] That's been really difficult for me. I had a tough upbringing to say the least, and I really struggled to find myself and a feeling of home and belonging and family. I eventually found that and that saved my life for sure. But it does mean that the only home I know is 1700 miles away and the support network and family that I found, my partner and my future mother-in-law, they're the most amazing people. I've had that taken away from me and constantly being denied any hope of getting it back anytime soon has had a huge impact on my mental health and really sent me into some dark places.

[00:04:53] On a lighter note. I also really miss his mom's cooking. I've joked that when I finally am allowed to visit, I'll be smuggling her back in my suitcase because I'll be damned if I let these restrictions make me miss out on her Croatian cheese pie for another year.

[00:05:07] But more seriously, the travel restrictions have meant that we've missed Christmas and new year, my daughter's birthday, our birthdays, Valentine's day, Easter. All of those things and all of the mundane stuff too, that, you know, couples who can see each other take for granted. So hugs, kisses, pranks, walks, all of that and more. I'm now going to the end of my university course provided I actually pass since my grades have taken a nosedive along with my mental health, but if it remains illegal to leave Scotland, I then faced missing another occasion: my online, COVID-friendly graduation ceremony without my partner and without my loved ones.

[00:05:51] This has been one of the toughest times in my life. And we're both just hoping and praying that it's going to be over soon so we can reunite and work on building a family unit and the rest of our lives together.

[00:06:03] Marion Specker


[00:06:03] Marion Specker: [00:06:04] I'm Marion from Switzerland and my boyfriend lives in the U S. We haven't seen each other for 14 months now. Of course, we're trying to FaceTime as much as we can, but there is still the time difference, which makes it more difficult, and the weekends when everybody's with their families and their partners and we're just alone. It's just super, super devastating and sad. I cry myself to sleep at least one to three times a week just because there is no end in sight. We have no dates at all. Um, yeah, I hope Mr. President Biden will lift the travel ban in mid May for everyone and yeah that all the separated families and couples can reunite.

[00:07:08] Mary Wooldridge Eligu

[00:07:08] My name is Mary Wooldridge Eligu.Mary Eligu Wooldridge: [00:07:11] I'm from the UK. I grew up in a place called Grantham in Lincolnshire. And when I was 19, I moved to Uganda, which was supposed to be for 19 months, but then I met my husband and I've been living there for four years.

[00:07:26] I haven't been back to the UK since June 2018. I have a sister who is in Sheffield and a brother who is in Germany. They all came up for my wedding in 2018. So that was the last time we were all together, which was really nice actually. We got married in September 2018 so we weren't really in a rush in 2019 to go back, we were still trying to settle. And then from 2020 the virus hit. So we were just unable to travel.

[00:08:03] So just before all of this corona thing, in February, my dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Thankfully he was able to get an operation, which was booked in for April at this point. And, you know, at this point me and Fidel were contemplating maybe traveling back home and getting the visa to see my dad, because my dad has a really good relationship with my husband. So we wanted to be there for my mum and, you know, be there as he recovers. So, you know, just as what families are supposed to do.

[00:08:41] And then the airport in Uganda shut in March. So no one was going in and no one was going out completely. It was just a very difficult thing because when you are, you just want to be there when your loved one is sick. You want to look after them and you want to support them during that time. And especially my mum because my mum was worried about everything. And I think having the diagnosis, especially for your mental health, it can be very difficult. And my dad struggled with that. We really wanted, we just wanted to be there, which was just not an option because of coronavirus.

[00:09:28] October was when the airport officially opened. My dad actually got the all-clear in November, which was great news. The operation was successful. But because they're still shielding, we decided not to travel at this very moment in time with the really high cases in the UK. I don't want to be the reason why my parents get coronavirus.

[00:09:55] I think some days have been a lot better than others, but I think living away from home is very, very difficult. And then you put the pandemic on top of it. It's been incredibly tough. Some days I've not handled it that well, like being quite upset and homesick in comparison to other days.

[00:10:19] But I think it's also, my parents used to visit like two to three times a year, which was so helpful. And I just don't know when I'll see them again, which has put like a huge strain on me because I love my parents. I'm quite a relational person, so not being able to see them has been very, very difficult.

[00:10:42] I have absolutely no idea when they'll come. I think my mum said she'll come as soon as she can, but if she's not able to come soon, then I'll possibly travel back around November.

[00:10:59] When I do see like things regarding travel restrictions or if people have traveled and there's an article on it, I think some people in the comment section don't realize that not everyone travels for leisure. And I think that's something a lot of British people don't understand that people do have families overseas and there is a need for some people to actually travel to see their families.

[00:11:32] And I just remember reading, I think they had a picture of Heathrow airport. There was a flight leaving and there was just a lot of really rude remarks about the people who are leaving. And they were just quite racist: "these are the people spreading the virus" and yeah, it just really made me so angry because I think people do forget that a lot of British people do have families in, all over the world. And I think this was a flight going to Pakistan. And I know a lot of people in the UK who do have their grandparents in Pakistan or that sort of area. It just made me really angry.

[00:12:19] There's something else making Mary angry. It's a bit off topic, but it isn't really because COVID travel restrictions in a way have only expanded and aggravated existing inequities for transnational families.

[00:12:32] It's very difficult for him to get a visitation visa to the UK. He has to prove a lot of ties to Uganda. I think it's 93 pounds, but it's nonrefundable. From what I do understand a lot of Ugandans are always very unsuccessful with getting visitation visas.

[00:12:49] Isabelle Roughol: [00:12:49] British citizens who marry abroad need to reach a certain income threshold, independent of their spouse, to sponsor them to live in the UK. So Mary could technically come home, despite travel restrictions, saying she's simply moving back, but she'd have to leave Fidel behind.

[00:13:07] Mary Eligu Wooldridge: [00:13:07] Because of the minimum income requirement, I would need to be earning 18,600 pounds. I come from an area with not many high-skilled jobs. It would just be very difficult for me to get that job. And moreover, we'd be separated for six months plus. If I do by some miracle manage to get a job when I arrive in the UK, it wouldn't take so long, but yeah, you have to also have six months worth of payslips, that's why I'm saying it would take six months plus.

[00:13:47] I just get so angry that they don't seem to care about British citizens who do live overseas or have married overseas. It just makes me feel like I'm such a burden to the government when I've not done anything wrong. I just want them to maybe look at families like us differently and maybe have a lot more compassion towards us and to stop treating us like we're a huge burden to the system. Just give us a more fair chance of being able to do normal family things like traveling to the UK as a family and not having to prove that my husband isn't some criminal who wants to illegally stay in the UK. It's just quite frustrating having to prove constantly that my marriage is not some scam, or my relationship is genuine and my husband is not a criminal or my husband's not a bad person. And I think it just feels so exhausting.

[00:15:05] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:05]
That alienation from home is a topic that has come up again and again. For many, it has made the isolation even more palpable and the prospect of return emotionally fraught that's come up in unexpected ways for Jane Copeland, a New Zealander in the UK.

[00:15:22] Jane Copland

[00:15:22] Jane Copland: [00:15:22] We left New Zealand after Christmas on the 2nd of January 2020, which I count as the worst mistake I made in 2020. I should never have left the country. But that was the last time I saw my parents. And before that it was another year before that. We were trying to get into the habit of going back at Christmas, but that obviously didn't happen this year.

[00:15:43] It's been a very interesting time, I think, to be somebody who lives overseas from where they from especially being, I think, a New Zealander or an Australian.

[00:15:53] I think in New Zealand, there's always been a lot of frustration. We were often an afterthought internationally. I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger and I used to travel to Europe a lot and you'd come across people who had never even heard of New Zealand. Didn't even know that New Zealand existed, or if they did, they weren't quite sure where it was. They thought it might be part of Australia. Nobody really knew anything about us. And I think that, that was always a bit frustrating because you thought, we matter, we are a unique country full of unique people. And as the years went on, more and more people became aware of who we were on the back of things like The Lord of the Rings movie. We became a tourist destination. And so people then knew who we were.

[00:16:37] And then COVID happened. All of a sudden we were shot to the top of international talking points. New Zealand has suddenly found itself to be a big success story. And a lot of people have taken the frustrations that they had about the way we used to be treated. And that has become quite toxic because they have, I think to a degree, decided to externalize all of that frustration that we grew up with and be like, "look at me, I'm the best. Now you guys all suck."

[00:17:09] And looking at it from the outside, I understand the frustration. I understand the chip on the shoulder, I've had it myself. But it is not a nice way to behave when the rest of the world is suffering. Especially because there is still, there are still hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders and Australians overseas. And we certainly hear the nasty comments that get made.

[00:17:32] There's been a lot of people saying things like "don't come home" and it's hard to hear because although we don't have any plans to come home at the moment, it would be pretty much impossible at the moment for us, the idea that people are telling you not to come back is upsetting. It's not very nice. Especially if you do something like what we've done, where we've gone months at a time without leaving the house.

[00:17:53] When you see, like, the nasty comments. Some of the things that people have said, I think they don't understand. They have zero concept of what it's been like to live here or in mainland Europe or in the United States during all this because... There's been a lot of criticism from some New Zealanders, and they're not the majority, but some New Zealanders, making out that we're to blame or we're in the wrong or at fault for some of the really ordinary things that we've had to do.

[00:18:23] So there was a conversation that I ended up seeing on Twitter yesterday because it got retweeted or got liked into my stream. And it was saying, Oh, there was this woman who went to the tip in Manchester. My friend in Manchester was saying that she went to the dump, the rubbish dump. And "that's not lockdown. I don't know why they think they're in lockdown. Is there any wonder that their country is so screwed up?" It's like, it's been a year. Sometimes you have to go to the tip. Like you're gonna leave it in your driveway or?

[00:18:54] And I think that they don't really get it because New Zealand was in lockdown for five weeks. And there are some things that you can put off for five weeks. But now for us, it's been 11 and a half months since we closed the office, slammed the doors, took our kid out of school. I don't think that they actually understand what it's been like to live like this for this amount of time. This is people's lives. A lot of people have died. A lot of people are miserable. Like it's not being smug about rugby or the Olympics or something that doesn't matter. This is real.

[00:19:26] This sounds bad, but after a while, after basically a year, sometimes it gets really hard to be constantly in the position where you're happy for other people. Cause I am happy for them, like I'm happy for you, all of my friends on Facebook, all my high school friends who are safe and happy and going about their normal lives. But I mean, Christmas Eve, I had a bit of a meltdown, bit of a breakdown because sometimes it's just hard after a long time to constantly be "I'm so happy for you." And, but my life is what it is.

[00:20:01] Outro

[00:20:01] Isabelle Roughol: [00:20:02] In the past week, the British government has started to detail its plans to resume foreign travel. It does not differentiate between holidays and family reunions. It does not yet list which countries will be allowed and it does not offer a start date. May 17 at the earliest is all we know.

[00:20:18] When he made the announcement, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had a word for transnational families.

[00:20:24] Grant Schapps: [00:20:24] The one third of people, actually over a third of children born in this country to at least one parent who themselves was born outside of the UK means that perhaps uniquely amongst major economies, we have family connections all over the world at a much larger scale, and those families won't have seen each other for many months. And as we domestically unlock, I think it is right to look at a safe, secure, with an abundance of caution, system to be put in place to enable, uh, those types of visits to, to go ahead.

[00:20:56] Isabelle Roughol: [00:20:56] Those 30 seconds were the first and only acknowledgement I could find from the British government. And I've been paying attention for a while.

[00:21:02] I want to thank Mary, Jane, Beate, Marion and Arietta for sharing their stories so generously and thank you as well to Alex, Sharon, Hannah, Sally, Wendy, Maggie, Jo, Sabrina, Johann, Paolo, Darcy, Ioana, Laurence, Sean, Isabelle, and so many, many more who have reached out and shared their stories on social media or in my inbox. I wish you all joyful reunions as soon as possible.

[00:21:29] If you think these stories are important and you want more coverage of lives live across borders, please support it by becoming a member at join.borderlinepod.com. Borderline is a hundred percent funded by its listeners and needs your help to continue.

[00:21:42] Thank you and welcome to speak to several new members: Peter Feher, Lain Burgos-Lovece, Karen Bacellar, Gregory Nicolaïdis, Teodora Agarici as well as an anonymous new member. And my apologies if I'm not pronouncing these names right. Do feel free to send me your pronunciation guide as well when you sign up. We really have members from all over the world, well beyond my language skills, and I absolutely love that.

[00:22:07] Thank you so much for listening. I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. I'll talk to you next week.

[00:22:17] Last words to Matt Hancock.

[00:22:19] Matt Hancock: [00:22:19] On the summer holidays. Uh I'm I'm, I'm going to Cornwall. Uh, and, uh, I, you know, I've said before, I think we're going to have a great British summer.

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.