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Foreign students framed by May’s ‘hostile environment’

Thousands of students stand wrongly accused of cheating on an English language test — many were deported and others have spent the last five years in a desperate bid to clear their names, writes ANN DOUGLAS

WHEN Roni Mandal came from India to study in London in 2011, it was a dream come true.

His cousin, his father and a friend based in London had waxed lyrical about the reputation of the British education system.

He settled in swiftly, completing a course at Guildhall College, and then taking the compulsory English language test for foreign students, before moving on to a more advanced course.

Three years later he was admitted to the London campus of University of Wales Trinity Saint David and was granted a 43-month university visa.

While in the process of fixing an administrative issue created by the Home Office, he was notified that there was an allegation against him of cheating on his English test.

The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), run by US-based company Educational Testing Services, was a Home Office-accredited test taken by international students in order to receive a visa.

A BBC Panorama documentary in 2014 identified a number of flaws in how the test was being conducted and uncovered — limited — evidence of cheating on part of both entrants and invigilators. The evidence was referred to the Home Office.

What happened next was explosive. Under then home secretary Theresa May, the Home Office cancelled the visas of 35,870 students in one fell swoop. Around 22,000 others were told that their results were “questionable.”

Holes began to appear immediately. One person was accused of cheating on a test in Leicester when he has proof he attended a London test centre on the day in question.

Another student was accused having never even applied to sit TOEIC. Reportedly, there was administrative chaos. In Roni’s case, he had already taken an accredited English test in India and had no reason to cheat.

Along with the accusations came the deportations. Shammi, a 34-year-old Bangladeshi woman who had been studying in the UK since 2009, had her visa application refused after taking the TOEIC test.

“My money was OK, my papers were OK,” she says, “but they didn’t want to give me the visa. In the appeal hearing they just told me: ‘We don’t believe that you are a real businesswoman’ and they didn’t say anything else.”

Only later was she shown that a TOEIC cheating allegation was the reason for her refusal.

She insisted she had not cheated. “This is the law now, you have to leave the country,” she says she was told. She was also led to believe that going to Bangladesh and coming back to the UK after one year was the simplest and quickest solution.

“I didn’t want to stay in England illegally,” she says.

“My son was three-and-a-half years old. I would have had to stay another three-and-a-half years illegally. How could I do that? It was a big risk!

“I thought it would be better for us if I could apply after one year. One year is nothing. I believed the immigration officer and trusted her 100 per cent.”

One year after her return to Bangladesh, Shammi contacted her solicitor and learned that she could not return. Accused wrongly of cheating, Shammi says she is the one who feels cheated.

Mohammed (not his real name) had moved to the UK for his career, studying IT at the London School of Technology.

But he found love as well, marrying a British woman in 2014. The cheating allegation emerged while he was applying for a spousal visa, and he was told to report to a Home Office centre every fortnight.

“Every day was devastating,” he says. “I couldn’t stay calm, I was mad. I never missed any reporting date and every time I wondered if that was the last one, if that would be my last day in the UK with my wife.”

His solicitor wrote a reconsideration letter to the Home Office, but he did not receive a reply. His request for judicial review was refused.

Months later, he was detained and then deported within a few hours. He was not even allowed to say goodbye to his wife before being forced onto a flight.

Thousands of those who stayed in the UK were subjected to immigration enforcement visits, often dawn raids with a dozen or more officers present.

Nearly 1,500 students went straight from class to detention — into Britain’s opaque and controversial immigration removal system which is now facing an independent inquiry following claims of widespread abuse and assault.

As of 2016, over 4,600 students had been pushed out, either by force or simply giving up and going home.

Ronak first arrived in the UK on a working holiday visa, the kind that many Brits use to explore other countries in their twenties.

He later returned to the UK as a student but in 2014, he was suddenly faced with the TOEIC allegation and told to report to the Home Office every fortnight.

But he decided not to, simply because he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. He was eventually arrested and taken to Dover.

His deportation was blocked through judicial review and he was released 60 days later, around which time both mental health and heart problems set in.

In 2016 he was arrested again and held for seven months.

There was little help from the universities. In Roni’s case, they said they were following Home Office directions and withdrew him.

He had paid £5,000 for the first year of his course, for which — like all those affected — he has not been refunded. But for the core of students, the “TOEIC Victims” as they dubbed themselves, who stayed and fought, it has not been about the money but the principle.

Roni has spent £10,000 on legal proceedings so far and others several times that. Many say they cannot put a price on clearing their names and reputations.

“After this allegation, the damage is permanent,” says Waqar, one of the students affected and a co-leader of the students’ campaign for justice.

“But clearing our names means we can get rid of the shame — the shame for my family and the question mark on my character … Until then, I can’t move on, I can’t sleep properly.”

But very few students have so far been able to clear their names through the courts, despite multiple judges issuing severe criticism of the Home Office.

One judge ruled that the “generic evidence” they provided contained “multiple frailties.” Another tribunal ruled that the Home Office abused its power in forcing a college to expel a student and deliberately depriving him of a statutory right of appeal.

Some students have been granted a right to appeal from the UK after fighting their case in the courts, but most have not.

“Some people have been given in-country appeal rights. They can directly go the court and prove their innocence,” says Roni.

“How can they give some people in-country appeal rights, some people out-of-country appeal right, and some people no appeal right at all, with no reason or evidence?”

Those working on the issue can’t help but believe the Home Office has played a waiting game. Outgunned and under-resourced, most of those demanding justice have simply given up.

Those who remain are not only in financial trouble — the students report a range of mental health difficulties and severe depression is common. Several have tried to take their own lives.

And it is not just those people who stayed in the UK who have lost hope and become isolated. Most of the students come from Commonwealth countries, where many families have a deeply held faith in the idea of British justice.

Many parents who have spent their life savings on their children’s UK education believe the Home Office allegations, unable to see how the UK could treat an innocent person so harshly, and accuse their sons and daughters of bringing shame on their families.

“We came back to Bangladesh to stay with my in-laws,” says Shammi.

“When they realised we had no money, they started treating us as a burden.”

Shammi’s mother-in-law doesn’t believe her account of what happened. Some families have been far more supportive, but the damage to friendships and relationships is extensive nonetheless. A number of marriages have broken down as a direct result.

Some students simply haven’t told anyone. Roni’s family think that he is still studying and everything is going well.

“I haven’t told them because I don’t want to shock them,” he explains.

“My mum is ill and I don’t want that something happens to her. She keeps asking me when I’ll go back to India, and I keep telling her ‘soon.’ I’m missing my family a lot; I haven’t seen them for seven years. I don’t want to disappoint them.

“I’m stuck with nothing to do, sitting at home,” he says. “Every day I wake up and wonder what my future is going to be. It’s in the darkness! I came to study, I had ambition, I had hope, but now my hope is destroyed and I don’t know what to do. I cannot sleep at night. I keep thinking: ‘What can I do’?”

His partner has stopped waiting for him and married another man.

Over the last five years, the students’ situation has received some media coverage and garnered interest from politicians and campaigners — notably Labour MP Stephen Timms who has been fighting the students’ corner for some years.

But in a post-Windrush world, where Theresa May’s “hostile environment” is facing its first serious scrutiny, the students and their supporters are now hoping that there is a chance for real change.

From the notorious “Go Home” vans to racialised Border Agency raids at workplaces or on the street, from detention centre abuses to secret deportation flights, from Home Office officials embedded in local councils to doctors and landlords turned civilian border guards, the hostile environment has seeped into the fabric of British society, yet is being challenged like never before. The moment, say organisers, is now.

In 2017 the case was taken up by Migrant Voice, a charity that works to improve migrant representation in the media and public life, and despite having a tiny staff team, covers issues ranging from family reunion to refugee protection to European citizens’ rights after Brexit.

The rally in Parliament Square they and the students organised on a damp and bitterly cold morning in January made the evening news and started to shift the issue back into the limelight.

Working with parliamentarians, other civil society groups, trade unions and the students’ self-organised campaign, Migrant Voice is trying to persuade Home Secretary Sajid Javid to allow the students to sit a new, secure English test and restore the rights of all those who pass. This solution won’t turn the clock back five years, but it can at least reset it.

“We were in shock when the students came to us,” says Migrant Voice director Nazek Ramadan.

“We simply couldn’t believe that this could have happened to over 35,000 students. But when we looked into it, we found out that it was true. From that moment we knew we had to work with the students to get justice.”

“The Home Office has stolen these students’ futures; it’s about time they did the decent thing and admit they were heavy handed in handling the TOEIC debacle, allow the students to sit a new secure English test and prove their innocence.”

In theory it is not a difficult ask, even for this Home Secretary.

International students are short-term migrants who contribute significantly, and fear-mongering rhetoric and headlines do not work in the same way as with more vulnerable migrant groups.

Pro-Brexit Conservatives talking about a “global Britain” should embrace aspirational students from Commonwealth countries, and the way in which the students have been treated should offend the British sense of natural justice in a way that cuts across political divides.

The cross-party signatures on the campaign’s early day motion indicate this is already taking place.

Reality is trickier however — so far, Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes has flatly refused to budge when challenged by journalists or MPs.

The Home Office is unlikely to respond out of a sense of justice and compassion alone, but, as with Windrush, it is vulnerable to sustained pressure.

With Brexit on the horizon, a minority government and no visible way out of the current political turmoil, there are real opportunities for effective campaigns to score swift victories.

This climate is what Migrant Voice and the students are hoping to capitalise on, and they are calling for signatures on their petition, statements of support and crowdfunding to continue the campaign.

With the campaign picking up speed, Nazek has said: “We are so close to victory, it’s the final push, and pressure is building inside Parliament with new groups set up to investigate this and over 35 members of Parliament supporting the plight of the students and their campaign for justice.”

“The students have been living in limbo for five years. It’s time for Sajid Javid to give them their futures back.”

If they succeed, it would bring the defensive architecture of recent migration policy — a deport-first, ask-later approach in order to meet a migration numbers cap that the government is unable to achieve — a step closer to crumbling.

But while some of the students affected are intimately aware of the broader picture and their place in it, their aim is much simpler: to end the limbo and the fog of unanswerable accusations that has plagued them for half a decade.

“I came here clean,” says Roni, “and I want to go back clean.”

A petition to allow the students to sit a new exam and clear their names can be found here: mstar.link/InternationalStudents.

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