Pakistani doctor's suicide highlights plight of unemployed immigrants

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The Independent Online

Imran Yousaf was already a qualified doctor when he said goodbye to his family in their village outside Lahore and headed for Britain to start a new life.

Like generations of other young medics from the Indian subcontinent, he thought he was desperately needed in the UK to shore up an NHS critically short of trained staff.

But two years later, having used up all his family savings and borrowed heavily from friends, Dr Yousaf, 28, was unemployed. Not that he had been idle in the meantime, having paid for and passed with flying colours the exam to practice in Britain. He was also studying for the finals of a Royal College of Physicians post-graduate qualification. Friends recalled how he wrote hundreds of letters each week to UK hospitals and applied for thousands of posts since setting up home in Burnley.

But Dr Yousaf was learning what many of those who came to Britain in the past five years were also realising - the bountiful NHS jobs they dreamed of were a dangerous mirage.

In March last year the Government had made it even harder for Dr Yousaf when the Department of Health ruled that UK postgraduates would take priority over overseas applicants. Dr Yousaf was incensed by the changes and sued the department.

"Being unemployed and in the UK still looking for work, going up against the Government was a very brave thing to do," said Dr Ramesh Mehta, consultant paediatrician at Bedford Hospital and president of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, which backed the challenge.

But in the run-up to last week's ruling in the High Court, in which it was found the Government had acted lawfully even though it failed to consult properly over the changes, things became too much for the young doctor. Increasingly depressed and indebted, friends became worried about him. A fellow doctor invited him to stay with him in Bedford.

Dr Yousaf was found hanged in a room above his friend's surgery last month. Although he left no note, beside him was a letter from immigration officials saying there would be no further extensions on his visa.

Dr Rajendra Chaudhary, who had been receiving distraught emails from Dr Yousaf, said: "He felt let down by the Department of Health and decided that he couldn't face going back to Pakistan with such a huge debt." Dr Yousaf was thought to have owed £13,000, relatively little in the UK but a fortune in his home country.

Dr Mehta believes there are many similar cases. "We know of at least two other cases of suicide in these circumstances in the last several months," he said, adding that the Government's actions were "completely immoral and inhuman".

Dr Yousaf's death has sent shockwaves through Britain's 16,000-strong community of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis working as trainees in the NHS, encouraged to come here under special arrangements established for 20 years.

Under separate changes to immigration rules, introduced at the same time as those designed to help home-grown graduates, they face a new threat.

In April the Home Office retrospectively increased the qualifying period for immigrants to be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK from four to five years. As the medics finish their short-term training contracts, they will find themselves unable to compete with British applicants. Dr Mehta fears they will be forced to uproot their families and return home out of pocket, and face the prospect of starting post-graduate training again.

But the changes will be felt far beyond the wards of Britain's struggling health service. It is claimed they will affect hundreds of thousands of overseas workers, many of them highly sought-after by employers. Feeling particularly let down are those who applied through the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, a fast-track system designed to encourage people with top-end qualifications to move to the UK.

Overseas workers who say they answered the Government's call to bridge the skills gap in good faith say tougher retrospective conditions to the criteria they must meet mean they face an even harder future. The campaign group, Voice of Britain's Skilled Immigrants, is seeking a judicial review of the law change.

Meanwhile, the human cost to the Government's get-tough policy on immigration continues to be felt, especially among those from the subcontinent who for half a century have been the backbone of the NHS. Many without medical work have been forced to take unskilled jobs to survive.

A posting on one internet discussion board used by junior doctors says: "To the rest of my countrymen - let this not go on. We do not need any more suicides just for the sake of the NHS dream and having pounds in your bank account."

Victims of the change in the law

Padmanabhan Badrinath, Indian doctor

Dr Badrinath, 47, a Cambridge educated health consultant, arrived in the UK in 2002. He helps improve community health as part of a public health directorate within a primary care trust, and works as an affiliate clinical lecturer at Cambridge University.

He said: "I have been gainfully employed and paying taxes in this country for four years, and yet I am still being treated like I just stepped off the plane." He now has to pay overseas university fees for his son of £10,000 a year.

"I would never have come if I had known this would happen," he added.

Omar Massoud, Egyptian business consultant

A management consultant with a masters from Manchester University, Mr Massoud came to the UK in 2002. Based in Croydon, the 37-year-old advises on setting up city academies and helps plan private finance initiatives.

"My wife has had to return to Cairo with our little girl to do her studies as we cannot afford the overseas student fees," said Mr Massoud, who is also a qualified civil engineer. "This will have a damaging effect on the quality of people coming to the UK. I know qualified migrants will think twice about signing up to the programme now."

Nirvana Reddi, South African teacher

A South African-born primary school supply teacher in King's Cross in London, Nirvani Reddi, 47, moved to the UK with her family in 2002. She fears they may now be forced to move back to Durban.

She said: "My husband left his job with the police force, we sold our home and now they've moved the goal posts and we may have to go back, but we have nothing to go back to."

Her husband, Kevin, was set to join the Metropolitan Police last summer, but she said: "He can only join once he has leave to remain. Now, after waiting four years, he may never be able to join."

Mikhail Spivakov, Russian biologist

With a masters degree in molecular genetics from Moscow State University, Mikhail Spivakov is one of the best of his generation of scientists. But he is now considering moving to the US.

Lured to London by the Medical Research Council in 2002, he has been investigating stem cells and tissue implantation. Mr Spivakov, 26, said: "Professional migrants do not object to the UK changing its immigration laws - but these changes are being made retrospectively and affecting thousands of people who came here after being promised they would be able to settle permanently."