Students wrongly caught up in Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ still being detained and ‘living in terror’

Exclusive: Home Office accused of failing to act on plight of tens of thousands accused of cheating in English-language tests – years after investigation exposed as flawed

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 17 February 2019 22:30 GMT
Why is the Home Office getting so many immigration decisions wrong?

Students are still being detained and are living in “terror” after being wrongly caught up in Theresa May’s “hostile environment” crackdown five years ago, MPs and campaigners say.

The Home Office is accused of failing to act on the plight of more than 35,000 people accused of cheating in English language tests – after a flawed investigation – so they can clear their names.

The department is also criticised for refusing to provide up-to-date information about how many students have been deported, or refused permission to stay in the UK, over the past two years.

Now MPs are set to investigate the scandal themselves, amid fresh evidence that some are still being detained, while others are living in poverty or have mental health problems.

Stephen Timms, a Labour MP, said ministers must allow the students to sit a fresh test, grant visas to those who pass and allow them “time to complete their studies and to clear their names”.

He said Sajid Javid, the home secretary, had pledged to investigate individual cases, but had not yet replied to letters he sent before Christmas.

“Students living all over the UK have been victims of this scandal and have been left in a dire situation as a result,” Mr Timms told The Independent.

“One of those I wrote to the home secretary about was detained by the Home Office last week and was released subsequently only after I contacted his office.

“With growing concern across parliament about this shocking episode – and about the extreme hardship being faced by completely innocent students affected – we are establishing an all-party parliamentary group to investigate more fully what happened, with its first meeting next month.”

The move was welcomed by Migrant Voice, which has campaigned for the students, as offering fresh hope for “exposing the Home Office’s mishandling of the scandal”.

“It is appalling that the Home Office is continuing to detain international students as recently as Wednesday, they need to stop this now,” said Nazek Ramadan, its director.

“This is not something that can be dealt with in a year or even a month – it needs to be rectified now.”

However, the Home Office stood by its hardline approach and refused to say what, if any, arrangements the students could make to resit their English-language tests.

The controversy broke in 2014 when a BBC investigation alleged systemic cheating in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), which is contracted by the Home Office.

The test was used to determine whether a prospective foreign student understood English well enough to qualify for a student visa in the UK.

The affair is seen as an example of the hostile environment policy because Ms May, the-then home secretary, acted swiftly to cancel, cut short, or refuse, the visas of 35,870 students who had taken the test.

However, it then emerged the automated system used by Educational Testing Services (ETS) – a company called in by Ms May to investigate – was flawed, suggesting the allegations of cheating were false.

ETS had found that 33,725 results were “invalid”, because a proxy had been used, while a further 22,694 were “questionable”.

Ms Ramadan has called it “a Windrush-style textbook example of thoughtless decision-making”, while Mr Timms attacked “very clearly an aspect of the hostile environment”.

Migrant Voice said that among students “living in terror” after being detained, often after routine Home Office meetings, were:

  • A woman from India, who came to the UK to study hospitality management, held for a month in April 2018, who takes medication for kidney problems and described her situation as “hell”
  • A Pakistani man, detained for a month in November last year and given notice of deportation. He was released, but fears being detained again at any time; and
  • Mr Timms’s constituent, arrested by police just days ago and due to be taken to a detention centre the next day, before the MP’s intervention

When Mr Timms asked for up-to-date information on visa refusals and deportations, the Home Office told him: “The data was last published in February 2017 and only contains data to December 2016.”

Among the MPs who have signed a parliamentary motion tabled by the MP are Conservative Peter Bottomley, Jim Shannon, of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Green MP Caroline Lucas, as well as 11 Scottish Nationalists and 17 Labour MPs.

But the Home Office said hundreds of colleges which had sponsored students linked to ETS had had their licences revoked.

“The investigations in 2014 into the abuse of English language testing revealed systemic cheating which was indicative of significant organised fraud,” a spokesperson said.

“The scale of this is shown by the fact that over 20 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions, with prison sentences totalling 68 years.”

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