Two UK-based academics and their 11-year-old daughter face deportation after the Home Office said they had spent too long conducting fieldwork abroad.
Ernesto Schwartz-Marín, an anthropology researcher at Durham University, and his wife Arely Cruz-Santiago, a postgraduate researcher in the university’s geography department, have been told by the Home Office that their family has 14 days to leave the UK.
The Mexican-born couple, who moved to the UK more than a decade ago, spent 270 days working with victims of gang violence in Mexico, using their expertise to build a DNA database to help locate the missing.
Subsequently, in October last year, they made an application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, which was rejected.
Home Office guidelines state that non-EU migrants cannot spend more than 180 days outside the UK during their visa period, unless they are “attending to a national or international humanitarian or environmental crisis”.
However, Dr Schwartz-Marin claims that his project was “very clearly” humanitarian. The way he and his family had been treated was “fundamentally unfair”, he said.
“I put myself and my family in danger to perform this risky research, and then I’m punished when I get back because I’ve spent too many days out of the country,” Dr Schwartz-Marin said.
He added: “It shows there is something fundamentally flawed about the whole Home Office system – and I think it’s going to get worse as Brexit progresses. This is happening to me as a Mexican, but most Europeans are going to be in this situation in a few years.”
Dr Schwartz-Marin also claims that, due to the extremely sensitive nature of the fieldwork he does with his wife, they could both be put in danger if forced to return to Mexico.
“This is a very sensitive topic, so [the Home Office] are actually making us a lot more vulnerable by sending us back,” he said. “One of the things that made us untouchable was our transnational [status].”
A Home Office spokesman said: “While we do allow absences, which are clearly set out in rules and guidance, this particular application did not meet that criteria.
“Dr Ernesto Schwartz- Marin applied for indefinite leave to remain in October 2017. It was refused on the basis that he was absent from the UK for more than 180 days within the five consecutive 12-month periods preceding the date of the application.
"The decision was made taking into account evidence provided by Dr Schwartz-Marin regarding his absences from the United Kingdom."
Tim Clark, pro-vice-chancellor (social sciences and health) at Durham, said: “We have very recently been made aware of the developments in this case. We are not able to comment on personal circumstances.
“However, we are committed to supporting our staff wherever possible and we are providing such support in this instance.”