Omar Waraich: Pakistani immigrants must not all be cast as extremists

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The Independent Online

For many Pakistani students, the notion that Britain’s visa regime is somehow “lax” will come as a surprise. While thousands of applicants meet with success each year, many are denied the ability to even visit Britain, let alone claim their places |at some of the best universities, on baffling grounds.

Consider the case of a Pakistani academic with three degrees from British universities. When his son expressed a desire to study in London, the family planned a visit to prospective universities. The application fee alone cost £200 per person and was non-refundable. “If you are refused a visa,” the academic said, “you do not get your money back.” He declined to be identified by name for fear of “being denied a future visa”.

He and his wife were granted visas, but their 17-year-old son was turned down, and the passport was confiscated for three months and passed on to Pakistani authorities. No explanation was furnished by the British high commission. Eventually the authorities conceded that they had made a mistake. But the following year, the student’s application was delayed and he was forced to miss crucial weeks of term. Others at his school were denied a student visa altogether.

Not least for the elite, studying in Britain is a decades old tradition for Pakistanis. The country’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, read law at Lincoln’s Inn, the cricketer and politician Imran Khan read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Keble College, Oxford, while the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was president of the Oxford Union.

With the ascent of the Pakistani middle class, and the mushrooming of “new universities” in Britain, the choices have grown. Now, more than ever, students are looking to gain from opportunities that are not available within their own country. And at the same time, scores of former polytechnics are keenly advertising the chance to earn a “British degree” across the country.

Even when students have secured their university places and visas, they encounter difficulties. Until recently, the falling rupee meant that student fees and living costs were constantly rising. In previous years, students were not allowed to work part-time, a law that has since been relaxed. And when travelling between Britain and Pakistan, many, especially young men, often have to endure the indignity of being pulled aside, questioned at length and thoroughly searched. Even British citizens of Pakistani origin can face similar treatment, as Heathrow immigration officials have often made me realise.

There is no denying Pakistan’s appalling track record of exporting terrorism. But the answer does not lie in choking off the stream of overwhelmingly legitimate students, or casting all Pakistanis as potential terrorist suspects. As many Pakistanis point out, over the past two years it is they who have been among the principal victims of terror as a raging insurgency spreads eastwards across the country and vicious suicide bombings strike in the heart of major cities. Deepening cultural and political divisions will only exacerbate the problem.

The fight now lies within Pakistan. And that will mean helping Pakistanis to permanently dismantle the profusion of terrorist training camps that lie in the tribal areas, and are scattered across parts of Punjab and Kashmir. Nothing else will work.