Reunification Visas for Students are Broken

Ghent,

One of the things I’ve praised European countries for, is the fact that if you are on a working visa, your spouse is also allowed to work. Unfortunately this doesn’t apply if you’re on a student visa (at least in Belgium), not even if you are doing a PhD program and making money. More than a rant, this is a list of genuine questions about why this doesn’t make any sense for Belgium and its universities and why I think any country in the world would be better if they allowed PhD student’s spouses to work.

I understand the logic. To get a working visa as a dependent, your spouse needs to have a working visa. And technically, even if my wife is earning money, she’s not really on a working visa. Therefore, I don’t get a working visa. MT.

Before I moved here I informed myself so this didn’t come as a surprise. My guess is that as a software developer I can probably find a company to sponsor me a work permit and change my visa status. And even if I don’t manage to find one, we already prepared our budget for the worst case scenario and I’d be more than happy to have a sabbatical. My discontent about this situation is not personal but for so many other people who cannot find jobs so easily or who cannot afford not to work.

Why are Belgium and Belgian universities OK with this?

As the person being directly affected by this, I could come up with lots of questions and reasons why this is bad for me, but I don’t think that’d be very interesting. What I rather know is, how is this system working for Belgium and Belgian universities? My guess is that it doesn’t and here’s why I think so:

  • If a person is already living here, wouldn’t the government benefit from having them pay taxes? And from them giving money back to the system by spending more? Wouldn’t Belgium benefit from another person performing work instead of sitting at home doing nothing? How does letting a persons' ability to work go to waste help the country?
  • If the person starts feeling depressed/anxious or having any other kind of mental/health problems, which is common when people don’t feel like they are contributing to society, they will end up costing more to the social healthcare system. Is every Belgian who pays their taxes aware of this?
  • My guess is that having people who cannot officially work, opens up a black market for migrants. Not only does this affect migrants (no healthcare, low wages, exploitation, etc) but it also affects locals (less tax money, shady businesses, segregation, etc).
  • Is this meant to re-enforce the status quo that one person should be the provider and the other stay at home? My assumption is that the higher paid partner is more likely to be the one being supported in a household e.g. my wife and I’d have never done this if we were aiming to keep our earnings as high as possible. We are also aware as a society that gender pay gap is a thing1, in other words, is this meant to re-enforce the status quo that men should be the providers and women stay at home?
  • What if someone decides not to take a PhD offer because of this? This means that the person, that a university considered to be the best candidate for a job, won’t be available to produce the work. What if this person comes from a developing country? Isn’t Belgium interested in supporting them to increase their doctor headcount? This is assuming that they will go back after their studies, I’m well aware brain drain hurts developing countries.(I couldn’t find numbers for how many non-EU PhD students, which are married to non-EU partners stay after their studies, but our visa is quite strict so my guess is that this number is quite low)
  • How much extra stress will a PhD student have because their partner cannot work? I’m not only thinking about the money but they might feel responsible for their partner’s mental well being. How likely does this make a PhD student to withdraw? How much of what was invested in that candidate can be considered a waste of time/money/etc if they actually withdraw? (Again I wish I had numbers about such withdrawal rates, if you have any please share them with me)

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m more than thankful that this country is giving us the opportunity to continue our journey. I’m also well aware that the situation is even more complicated in other countries2. But one thing that I’ve learned as an expat is that, just because a country is opening their doors to you, doesn’t mean that you don’t get to question their ways. As a matter of fact, this is not specific to Belgium, it applies to any country with the same policies. I believe that the only way we can improve as a society is by questioning our ways and coming up with better ones. As I said before, this is not a rant but I’m openly questioning this matter. I personally believe any country and its universities would benefit from giving PhD student’s partners a work permit and making it easy for them to join the work force.


  1. “A fairly large proportion of female employment in Belgium is part time. This is largely due to a stereotypical division of labour in the households, where women take up most of the care given to children and other relatives.” genderpaygap.eu ↩︎

  2. Other countries like the US won’t do this. This is the main reason why I personally recommend married Latino software developers to migrate to Europe instead of the US. ↩︎


tagged: ExpatLife Visas

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