“We can only afford what we need to survive,” says Akhlakur Rahman, speaking from his small flat in Swindon as children’s music plays loudly in the background in an effort to keep his one-year-old son entertained. “We have simple meals – plain rice, plain bread for breakfast. It’s been really hard.”
The 37-year-old moved to the UK from Bangladesh in 2009, followed shortly by his wife, Mahanaz, 30, three years later. Both began their studies – him in law and her in advanced management – but they were plunged into difficulty when Mahanaz was accused of cheating in an English language test in 2014 – when she hadn’t even sat the test.
She was one of tens of thousands of migrants subject to this accusation in the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic) – one of several that overseas students can sit to prove their English language proficiency – and subsequently told they had no right to stay in the UK, with no proper right to challenge the decision.
Last year, the Home Office was accused by the National Audit Office (NAO) of failing to ensure innocent people were not wrongly targeted in the operation, which saw thousands of students removed from the country.
Following the NAO report, the department came under pressure to allow those accused to retake the test to prove their innocence, but no action was taken. Those affected now feel they have been “forgotten”, and are struggling more than ever during the pandemic as they continue battling to clear their names.
As a consequence of the allegation, Mahanaz was dropped from her college and couldn’t continue her studies. The same applied to Akhlakur, who also had his visa curtailed because he was in the UK as her dependent.
In January 2020, her case was heard in the courts and the judge agreed that she hadn’t cheated, but dismissed the appeal as he said the family could go back home.
However, going back to Bangladesh would mean returning without having completed their studies, which they had paid large sums of money for, and with the allegation still hanging over Mahanaz, which would make finding a job near impossible.
“For the past four or five years, we’ve been really scared,” says Akhlakur. “We’ve heard of lots of people who have been arrested and put in detention centres. In the nighttime we can’t sleep. We worry that the police are going to knock down our door and take us out.”
He says they have spent over £40,000 since the allegation – much of it borrowed from friends and family – on various visa applications in a desperate attempt to be able to continue their lives in the UK and finish their studies.
“If I’m a criminal or if I’ve done something wrong, that’s fine – I will take the allegation, but it’s meant spending a lot of money for nothing,” he adds.
Financially, things have become increasingly difficult for the family, especially during the pandemic, when the usual support networks are no longer there.
“It’s very hard when you realise that you can’t buy something for your kid. I need to think about every penny. We can’t buy him nice clothes or shoes,” says Akhlakur. “This allegation is killing us slowly. It’s like the Home Office is just playing with us.”
A recent survey of 138 students affected by the Toeic scandal, carried out by charity Migrant Voice and Bindmans Law Firm, found that one in four were struggling to buy essentials such as food, while 14 per cent were having difficulties paying rent or had been made homeless.
Seven respondents said that they were solely relying on family to survive; four had no money to carry on fighting against their allegation, and four mentioned having suicidal thoughts.
In another case, Janibush Piyash, 35, had been in Britain for more than a decade when he was accused of cheating in an English language test and told by the Home Office that he must leave the UK. The Bangladeshi national had just been granted indefinite leave to remain and his son, who was two years old at the time, had been granted British citizenship, so the news came as a shock.
“I was stuck for words. I was so shocked. I couldn’t breathe; I was shaking. I couldn’t believe it,” says Piyash, describing the moment he opened the Home Office letter stating that his leave to remain in the UK had been revoked. “The allegation was absolutely wrong, but they didn’t offer me any right of appeal. Everything was ripped away at that moment.”
The father-of-two immediately set to work trying to resolve the situation and clear his name. He wrote to the Home Office denying that he had cheating, but they maintained the decision. He tried to launch judicial review proceedings, but permission was initially refused until he was eventually granted permission in 2018 – although his claim was dismissed.
In all, the legal costs amounted to about £18,000, much of which he had to borrow from family and friends. Piyash was recently granted legal aid and is preparing to challenge the decision again, but his family – his wife and their two sons, aged six and two – have suffered for five years and counting, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the difficulties.
“I live with my wife and two kids in one room,” says Piyash. “Things were already very bad, but they’re even worse now. Friends and family who could help have their own issues now because of the lockdown. We’re in a grave situation.”
He and his wife are both able to live and work in the UK on the basis that they are the parents of a British citizen, their son Jarir. Their second son, Ayaan, is also legally resident on the grounds that his parents are here. However, these forms of status are only temporary, and Janibush is fearful that things could change at any point. He has also only been able to carry out menial jobs, as he wasn’t able to finish his studies because of the allegation.
“We are really scared. They could issue us another letter,” he says. “I feel really let down by this country. They didn’t give me the chance to appeal a false allegation. Now our status isn’t secure. We just want to be back to normal.”
Tuton Bhowmick, 39, who moved to the UK from Bangladesh with his wife in 2009, lives in a shared house in East Ham, London, sharing one bedroom with his wife and four-year-old son, because it’s all they can afford. These living conditions are all his son has ever known.
The Bangladeshi national studied for an MBA in supply chain management at the University of Sunderland. He had passed an English language test in Bangladesh before moving to Britain as part of his visa requirements.
In 2011, Bhowmick had to take another test in order to continue his studies in the UK. He sat the Toeic test, and in 2014 he was accused of cheating – an allegation he vehemently denies.
He was due to have an appeal hearing on 26 March in a bid to overturn the accusation, but it was postponed because of the pandemic, and he doesn’t know when it will be rescheduled.
Bhowmick, who suffered a heart attack in January, has struggled over the years since the accusation to provide for his family, and the coronavirus lockdown has made things even more difficult.
“We’ve struggled to feed ourselves. I feel ashamed to say it. Friends and family can’t come to give us support any more,” he says.
Things got particularly bad when someone else living in their house-share tested positive for the disease. Bhowmick was vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from the virus, so he and his family had to remain in the bedroom for the majority of the time.
“Those three weeks… I can’t tell you what it was like. We had to share a kitchen and a bathroom between everyone. We had to be so careful. It was scary,” he remembers.
“Often we’d eat lunch and dinner in the room, just have bread and butter. Whatever we had in the room we would manage and survive.”
Bhowmick says his parents in Bangladesh won’t believe he was falsely accused until it is proven in the courts. “There’s only one thing I want – to clear my name,” he adds. “But from the start I haven’t had the chance to speak. I feel we’ve been forgotten.”
Another individual caught up in the scandal, who wanted only to be named as Ali, says “everything turned bad” for him when he was dismissed from his college in 2014 after being accused by the Home Office of cheating.
Ali sat the Toeic test in 2012 in order to continue his studies after moving to Britain two years earlier. He had already completed a BA honours degree in business administration at Lancashire University with good grades. The allegation meant he was unable to complete his MBA, for which he had already paid a £12,000 fee.
“The university said they didn’t believe I had cheated as I had good grades, but they said they had to follow the Home Office orders, so they withdrew me from the course,” he says.
“I couldn’t work or study. I was made to sign on with the Home Office every second week. It was so terrible. It’s like you’re a criminal. At any point, they can detain you. And that’s what happened.
“In 2017 – I was detained for five weeks at the Verne detention centre. I have a very bad memory from that place. It caused me a lot of stress and depression.”
Ali, who had hoped to become an accountant, has been living with his uncle and aunt in Tottenham since 2017, when he was forced to move out of a shared house in Hackney because he could no longer afford the rent. He says that things became even more difficult during lockdown.
“Before, I could keep myself busy by going to the gym, doing some running, but I had to stop doing all this because of this virus, and that’s affected my mental health,” he says.
“My uncle and auntie are telling me I’m useless. They don’t know this process; they think I’ve done something wrong. They don’t want me to be in the house all the time. They’re always telling me to move out. I’m not welcome. But I don’t have any other option.”
The 32-year-old hasn’t seen his parents in eight years and is desperate to visit them, but feels he cannot return to Pakistan until he has his name cleared.
“I need to clear my allegation. In my family there’s a lot of respect. They sent me here for higher education, and spent money on that. I came here with no allegation in this country and I want to go back with no allegation,” he says.
“I’m not getting the chance to prove myself. I’ve been fighting for six years. My parents are getting old, but I’m stuck. I can’t go and I can’t stay. I’m in a constant state of worry and panic. I feel broken inside.”
Patrick Lewis, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers who represents Ali and has represented dozens of other individuals appealing against accusations of cheating in the Toeic test, likened the situation to the Windrush scandal.
“I’m very wary of using analogies, but it is a Windrush situation because of the injustice that has occurred. People have been accused of fraud, and given no right of appeal, except out-of-country appeals,” he said.
“It’s breathtaking. And the level of injustice has increased because those individuals were the most vulnerable in this lockdown, and will have been least able to obtain any type of support.”
Mr Lewis said that since a judgment in 2018 which ruled that people could not appeal from overseas, he had been able to overturn most of his clients’ allegations – but that for the thousands of people who had already been deported, or could not afford legal representation to appeal against the accusations, there may be no remedy.
Calling for a “proper review” into the scandal, he added: “If the Home Office is serious about changing the hostile environment, this would be a good way of demonstrating that there has been real change, because the absence of a review having taken place is inexplicable.”
Labour MP Stephen Timms, who has been campaigning for the rights of those accused of cheating, said the Home Office treatment of the students was “scandalous”.
“The home secretary has accepted the Windrush Lessons Learned recommendations. Toeic is a test of her seriousness. A redress mechanism would show a new willingness to learn lessons, and recognise the Home Office’s duty of care towards those who have been falsely accused,” he added.
Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, a charity supporting many of those affected, said: “All of this suffering is totally unnecessary. Multiple investigations have proven that the evidence the Home Office is still using against these students is fundamentally flawed – yet the current home secretary is refusing to recognise the scale and severity of the issue and to find a real solution.”
A Home Office spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment on individual ongoing legal cases, but added: “The courts have consistently found that the evidence the Home Office had at the time was sufficient to take action.
“However, we acknowledge that these events took place some years ago and we have revised guidance to caseworkers to ensure that we are taking the right decisions on cases that raise family and private life issues.
“The guidance is clear: an invalid Toeic certificate in a previous application is not a mandatory ground for refusal and the caseworker decision must take all relevant factors of the application into account.”
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