‘The (Statutory) Declaration of Love’, by Emma O’Neill-Sandham


Image provided by Emma O'Neill-Sandham

Lord Byron once described love as a “light from heaven” and e e cummings called it “most mad and moonly”, but neither poet was ever asked to prove their love to the Australian Immigration Department.

In order to obtain an Australian Partner Visa 820/801 my English husband Rich and I neatly curated our love into two A4 plastic sleeve folders. It was a long and arduous process that required us to prove our love, legally. A process that brought together two apparent antithetical forces – the ever-shifting, subjective idea of ‘love’ and the procedural, dehumanising bureaucracy of governmentality – and left in its wake a myriad of questions. How do you legally define and prove love? Is one definition of love even possible with so many cultural variations of its expression? And why is marriage migration so heavily administered, monitored and policed? Was political theorist Hannah Arendt right when she declared love to be “perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces”?

Rich and I met on 22nd April 2010 at a dodgy pub in Melbourne. We were both there to watch the State of Origin and fatefully (thanks to a bartender who showed me the best place to see the TV screen) stood next to each other to watch the match. (The next day I would write in my journal that “it was like gravity pulled me towards him” and make no mention of the bartender’s vital, practical advice.) After literally knocking into each other, we started talking. He had intense blue eyes and a grin that jumped wildly from shy to intense to cheeky as he told me about his native England and wild Australian adventures. He was in the British Royal Air Force, on exchange with the Australian service for three months. (On date number three he would tell me that he didn’t actually fly planes, but was in the Royal Air Force band and played the trumpet. Later, I would write in my journal that I thought this was “much cooler”.) That night New South Wales, the team I was cheering for, lost thirty-four to six. As commiseration Rich bought my friend and I shots of tequila. Everything after that was a blur.

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Dancing, drinking, making up our own handshake, flashes of his blue eyes, talking about Haruki Murikami, laughing… and kissing in a McDonald’s car park. And the blur — a lightness of sweaty dance floors, lip cracking smiles, indulgent Melbourne breakfasts, laughter, sex and spooning — continued until he flew home to England and I realised that there was something heavy about the lightness of this fling. I missed him. I’d never been in love before, but started to wonder if this is what it felt like? I had to find out. And so, I cleared out my savings account and bought a ticket to London. On that trip, in the middle of a dance floor at a jazz club he told me he loved me. And I said it back, to the first man outside my immediate family. Within six weeks I had flown home, quit my job, moved out of my apartment and moved to England to be with the love of my life. A move that everyone thought was mad, until I told them I was in ‘love’. A word that seemed to justify the craziest of actions. No one asked me to describe my love for Rich in lofty lyrical verse like Lord Byron. No one asked me to categorise my love like the ancient Greeks, and demand that I define my feelings as playful ludus, sexual and passionate Eros, or the deep friendship of Philla. And no one asked to look through the thousands of text and Facebook messages sent between us as proof (messages that ranged from the mundane: ‘Did you get my voice message? Xx – 27/05/2011 08:00’ to the gooey: ‘Love you so much for more reasons I can explain. Xx – 28/05/2011, 3:05’). We didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. The four simple words “we are in love” seemed to suffice. That was, until two years later.

We were living together in the small English town of Lincoln and had just gotten engaged — a romantic proposal from Rich in a rowboat on the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park — when we decided that migrating permanently to Australia might be a good move. Better weather, more space, a better life for our future children we’d concluded over many cups of tea on grim, overcast English mornings. I told Rich I’d start doing some research into what we’d need to make this happen. I predicted the process would be a bit more involved than when I moved to the UK, a move that required no paperwork or visa in light of the EU passport I inherited from my Irish parents. But I definitely wasn’t prepared for what I discovered on the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection website.

For Rich to move permanently to Australia with me I would need to sponsor him for a Partner Visa (subclass 820/801). Obtaining this visa was a two-part, two-year process. Part one, which would allow Rich to stay in Australia for an initial twelve months before further assessment, had a processing time of nine to twelve months, a non-refundable (even if you get rejected) fee of $3085, and involved the applicant (Rich) filling out a twenty-seven page, eighty-six part form and the sponsor (me) filling out a sixteen-page, fifty-three part form. But it wasn’t just the laborious and complex nature of the process that I found overwhelming. As I scrolled through the form I began to see a trend. Questions were specific, invasive and required hard evidence of intimate details of our relationship in order to prove such things as the “nature of our commitment to each other” and that our relationship was “genuine and ongoing”. There were sets of questions about how we met, how we ran our household and divided domestic duties, what we had in common and how we socialised. The demand to provide tangible evidence of our love almost looked humorous bullet-pointed on a government website:

  • “Provide evidence that you and your partner are usually accepted as a couple socially”
  • “Describe your domestic arrangements (how you support each other financially, physically and emotionally and when this level of commitment began)”
  • “Provide statutory declarations from your partner’s parents, family members, relatives and other friends about their assessment of the nature of your relationship”

There was no place on the form to argue with the Australian Immigration Department about cultural variations of love’s expression. Where could a couple from the Congo explain that, despite being very much in love, they aren’t smiling in any of their wedding photographs because of a Congolese tradition that disapproves of it? Where could a bride from the Tujia people of China explain that, despite being ecstatic to marry the love of her life, she followed tradition and prepared for her wedding by crying an hour a day for thirty days? Or a bride from the Masai nation of Kenya note that the reason her father spat in her face during the wedding ceremony was to bless her? And where was the place to argue, as philosopher Alain de Botton would no doubt have done, that love is a skill that needs to be learned and that when it comes to love the good stuff is the drudgery in the middle? Should we mention in our quest to fill out this form and prove our love that we bulk buy toothbrushes and always have a pizza in the freezer for lazy Friday night dinners?

But beyond noting the shortcomings and restrictions of this bureaucratic process, I started to wonder if maybe there was something more going on. Could this partner visa process be a classic example of what philosopher Michael Foucault calls “governmentality” and a form of social control? Did this strict, exhaustive process (which resulted in 1053 rejected partner visa applications between July 2010 and January 2014) hint at the Australian Government’s acknowledgment that, like Hannah Arendt, they too thought love might be “perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces”? Was this their way of pushing back against ‘love’ and marriage migration’s inextricable connection to movement and in turn it’s inevitable questioning of sovereignty? Such an assertion may seem lofty, but when you consider that love is a force that, as author and academic Lauren Berlant asserts, cannot be captured by the sheer force of individual will, as well as Anne-Marie D’Aoust’s idea that love is emotional movement (i.e. love is shared, given and received; in a constant state of flux) that can move people across borders, then love starts to take on a very powerful and political shape. Regardless, like any good bureaucratic process there was no way around it. For Rich and I to live out our days in Australia, he would need an Australian Partner Visa and we would have to fill out the form.

After accepting this, Rich and I spent months, liked crazed bowerbirds, collecting anything we could use as evidence. Pieces of paper we would normally scrap were now placed in a shoebox on our kitchen table and revered, injected as they now were with the apparent power of “proof of love”: bills from British Gas addressed jointly to Rich and I; three wedding invitations cordially inviting us to celebrate others’ love; photographs of us on holidays in Budapest, Barcelona and Prague (along with plane tickets proving we sat next to each other on said holidays); a Christmas card from Rich’s parents with the words “To a Loving Couple at Christmas” embossed on the front; and statutory declarations signed by a Justice of the Peace legally binding my friend Jessica and both of our parents to statements declaring that we were in fact “in love”. (“The validity of the couple’s true and ongoing commitment to each other is indisputable…” – Jessica Roslyn Capolupo, Commonwealth of Australia Statutory Declaration.) Then there was my own 500-word statutory declaration stating why I loved Rich. I had agonised over the wording for weeks. Then handed my declaration to a Justice of the Peace, a pharmacist I’d never met, who glanced at it briefly before giving the intimate summation of my love life his JP stamp of approval.

And we didn’t just get obsessed with collecting evidence, we started to consciously create it too. Moments normally enjoyed with a private kiss evolved into evidence gathering opportunities, photographed and captured. Like the time we finished a ten-kilometre race together and took a sweaty, awkward selfie for the section of our visa application where we had to prove “shared hobbies and interests”. Looking at that photo now, our faces strained and arms awkwardly wrapped around each other, you can see we had started to cross a line. All we wanted to do was get on with loving each other, but proving it within such a strict and disingenuous framework was taxing.

We weren’t alone in our concerns with the whole process. In dozens of online forums set up for Australian Partner Visa applicants, couples were venting their frustrations at the complexity and laboriousness of the form, and narrow-mindedness of what defines a “genuine” and loving relationship. One woman from Canada shared her concern that she and her partner wouldn’t have enough evidence for the social category of their visa application because they didn’t really go out — they didn’t have a lot of money, and on top of that her partner had a BMI of over forty and a history of depression. Another woman from America also had concerns about proving their love and asked whether her partner visa application should “include a bank statement that shows we went to an adult store and bought personal items for each other”. Another forum member also from America kindly advised against including the bank statement, saying that the Australian Department of Immigration didn’t want photos of anything more than “light kissing”. Both women, despite their concerns, would have a pretty good chance of getting their visa considering they were, as Rich was, from an English speaking country where the expression and definition of love was culturally similar to Australia. They were also, like Rich, from a country that the Australian government deemed low-risk. But what if they weren’t? How would this affect their chances of getting their visa approved and their experience of the application process?

Bahram Mia who works at the Community Migrant Resource Centre (CMRC) in Western Sydney has met a few of these applicants. He tells me about his own aunty, who met the love of her life in Afghanistan and embarked upon the same partner visa process as Rich and I, hoping to live out their days together in Australia. I try to imagine Bahram’s aunty and her partner falling in love. Did they meet at a pub or a bar like Rich and I? Did they laugh and dance and fall in love quickly? How did their love differ from ours? While I didn’t know the answer to that, I did know that their application process was a lot more difficult than ours; it took eight long years to be approved. During this time, they could not live together. Bahram tells me that the lengthy processing time was largely the result of two factors. The first being that the Australian Government deemed Afghanistan a high-risk country and in turn, the love of Bahram’s aunty’s life had to undergo much more rigorous security checks than Rich. The second being that the couple had struggled to provide sufficient evidence to prove their love in a “social context’ because, as Bahram told me, love in Afghanistan is expressed quite differently: “There isn’t really any kissing or showing of affection in public over there, even a wedding is a subdued affair.” And while Bahram’s aunty and her partner did eventually get their visa approved, Bahram tells me that the lengthy and difficult application process took a huge toll on them both mentally and financially. The couple, both now living in Australia, are currently separated.

After talking to Bahram, scrolling through hundreds of anxious forum posts, analysing my own experience of the visa process, and wondering if the whole process is less about ‘love’ and more about a Foucault-esque social control, I started to wonder if Australia could and should replace the whole thing with one single question: are you in love with an Australian? Many countries have a much simpler approach to marriage migration. Take Lebanon for example (another country considered high risk by the Australian Government) whose partner visa application process simply requires the submission of one single document from a town cleric or witness proving marriage.

One argument against simplifying the process, as Bahram mentioned, is that we are living in a post-9/11 society and that the government’s security concerns should, to some extent, be acknowledged. Another argument — one prominently displayed on the Australia First Party website — is to stop scammers who fake love in order to move here and claim welfare payments they can’t get in their homeland. A scam that, according to a Daily Telegraph report, defrauded taxpayers of $133 million in 2014. And while the romantic in me finds it abhorrent that people would fake love, I can’t deny it happens. Take Indian-born former migration agent Chetan Mohanlal Mashru and marriage celebrant Divya Krishne Gowda who in 2015 were each charged in a Queensland court with 17 counts of arranging a marriage for a visa. Or Indian man Pradeep Singh who told a Brisbane Court in 2015 that, to remain in Australia after his student visa expired, he paid more than $30,000 to enter into an arranged marriage with Australian woman Josie Haig. The first time he met his future Australia ‘bride’ he gave her $5000 in cash. In light of this, I can see some merit in a process more complex than my ‘one question’ approach. But surely there is room for more flexibility in defining a relationship, and a better way to deal with the forced meeting of the ever-shifting, subjective emotion of love and the procedural, dehumanising bureaucracy of governmentality.

In February this year it seems the Australian Government finally got the hint when two court cases ruled in favour of broadening the notion of love and relationships. The Federal Court — in a case relating to the Australian Partner Visa application of Mandeep Singh from India — ruling that romantic love was not necessary for a de facto relationship, and the Federal Circuit Court —in a case relating to the Australian Partner Visa application of Ang Yenny Angkawijaya from Indonesia — ruling that deeply dysfunctional relationships can be genuine. Federal Circuit Court Judge Heather Riley stated in the latter case that “there is clearly a significant percentage of marriages in which the parties have an appalling relationship… these marriages are nevertheless genuine”.

A few weeks before these court rulings, Rich and I — while on our honeymoon in Vietnam — received an email informing us that after two years and hundreds of pages of so called ‘evidence’ Rich’s Partner Visa 820/801 had been approved. The feeling of relief was overwhelming. No longer did the fate of our life together rest in the hands of some faceless bureaucrat. We celebrated the news with champagne, a kiss and a long, tearful hug. It was a personal, private moment between two people in love, not photographed or captured. Just enjoyed and then lost into that invisible place that love resides. A place somewhere between Lord Byron’s romantic verse and de Botton’s drudgery, between an unsmiling Congolese couple on their wedding day and the ancient Greeks’ Eros. And a place infused with a powerful antipolitical force resting quietly between the A4 plastic sleeve folders full of fragments of life sitting somewhere in the offices of the Australian Immigration Department.

Emma O’Neill-Sandham is a Sydney-based writer and current Master of Creative Writing student at Macquarie University. She has lived in eight cities around the world including Edinburgh, Lincoln, Melbourne and Byron Bay… and once moved to the other side of the world for love.