Last week, I met with an Indian man who has been refused the right to remain in the UK after living here for 11 years. This in itself isn’t hugely uncommon these days, unfortunately. But the details of this man’s case raised concerns about a new form of malpractice by the Home Office. Namely, a failure to protect its own witnesses.
Sameer Shaikh – a softly spoken, smartly dressed young man – was one of the main witnesses in a high-profile trial in 2016 into allegations of widespread cheating in English language tests by non-EEA nationals. He was skittish when I met him, and didn’t hide his fear of the Home Office, constantly imploring me to include all the details of what happened out of fear that otherwise the department would penalise him by refusing his appeal.
After a BBC Panorama documentary exposed widespread cheating across English language test centres in 2014, Shaikh’s life was turned upside down. Having worked at one of the agencies involved in administering illicit tests, and allegedly been blackmailed by his boss to take part, he himself was convicted of being involved in the scandal. But he was told by immigration officials that if he pleaded guilty, he could act as a witness in the prosecution.
Crucially, he says he was given assurances from the Home Office Criminal and Financial Investigations team that he would be protected from any repercussions from his former boss, who was also from India and reportedly knew where he lived. Shaikh showed me text messages in which an officer made assurances, telling him he was “making an application for him to stay” in the UK after the trial.
The trial ended in 2016, leading to the conviction of the suspects, which the Home Office crime team said were “no doubt in no small part due to the evidence supplied by Mr Shaikh”. But within months, the immigration officer stopped communicating with him and it became clear they weren’t going to get him status. Eventually he did respond with an email saying there was “nothing” that he could assist him with other than supplying a supporting letter confirming his assistance in giving evidence in the trial.
Keeping his hopes up, Shaikh applied for indefinite leave to remain, but it was refused by the Home Office with no mention of the trial in the refusal letter.
He told me that at this stage he felt “let down and betrayed”, and has since had suicidal ideation. “I believed in the government, I believed in the system. That’s why I was encouraged to go along with this. But they just left me totally helpless,” he said.
Shaikh is now appealing the decision, but he is terrified that this will be unsuccessful and he will have to return to a country where the man who he gave evidence against, and who has already sent him indirect threats, resides.
Clearly it is obvious this man, who gave evidence against someone he feared under the provision that the UK would protect him from repercussions, should not now be flown back to India.
We could see it as sheer nastiness from the Home Office – appearing to make assurances to someone in order that they help them out, and then dropping them as soon as they’ve done what they needed. But what I think this case really shows is just how disjointed and unaccountable it is.
One officer may have implied that this man would get protection in the UK, but despite this and the evidence of the trial, Shaikh’s application was refused with barely a mention of this. It is symptomatic of a department that increasingly fails to give immigration cases the time they require. Couple this with the hostile attitude that inclines decision makers to give a negative response over a positive one, and these stories will keep coming.
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