A charity has accused the UK government of a “four-year failure” in its treatment of thousands of foreign nationals, mostly students, whose visas were revoked or refused after they were accused of cheating in an English language test.
In a report published Tuesday, London-based migrant-advocacy charity Migrant Voice called for an immediate end to the detention and deportation of those affected and for the students to be given the opportunity to retake the test.
Since the Home Office began revoking thousands of study and work visas in 2014 on the basis that the applicants had used fraud to pass their English test, known as TOEIC, the government has faced serious allegations of wrongdoing from members of Parliament and senior judges regarding its handling of the situation.
Those affected were given no chance to retake the test, no access to the evidence against them for several years and no chance to appeal the decision from within the UK.
“The handling of the issue contradicts basic principles of British life, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the imposition of collective punishment,” said Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, in a statement Tuesday.
“Thousands of students are trapped. They can do nothing until they have cleared their names,” she said. “This campaign is proposing a simple, fair solution; let them take the English-language test, and let those who pass resume their university courses and their lives at the point at which they were brutally and arbitrarily cut off.”
In a statement to CNN, a Home Office spokesperson described the department’s response to the initial allegations as “measured and proportionate” as well as “robust.”
Wahidur Rahman, 28, from Bangladesh, was one of those who stayed in the UK to fight the allegations after having his visa revoked, and claims he has done nothing wrong. He welcomes the call from Migrant Voice for students to have the chance to retake the test or be interviewed by the Home Office.
“This is what we’ve been asking for for a long time,” he told CNN. “How do you find out who is genuine and who is a fraud? Give us a test, speak to us. I want myself to find out who is a fraud – they did this terrible thing and made us all bad to the Home Office.”
“Nobody’s asking for a favor from the Home Office, but we should be treated with dignity and fairness,” he said. “We’re asking for a fair trial.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Prime Minister Theresa May – who ran the Home Office from 2010 to 2016 – will come under renewed pressure to answer the TOEIC allegations later on Tuesday, when students accused of cheating attend the Houses of Parliament for the launch of the Migrant Voice report.
It follows months of criticism over the Home Office’s treatment of members of the Windrush generation from Commonwealth countries, legal migrants who have been wrongly subjected to the government’s “hostile environment” policy, which was designed by May as Home Secretary to target people who were in the country illegally.
More than 4,600 people deported
Investigations into the TOEIC test, set by global education provider Educational Testing Service (ETS), were prompted by a BBC documentary in February 2014 that revealed systematic cheating on the test at two colleges in London.
Subsequent analysis by ETS using voice biometrics technology found evidence of possible fraud – involving students using proxies to sit the oral exam – in nearly 34,000 cases.
In the first two years after the accusations emerged, the UK Home Office revoked or refused more than 28,000 visas and deported more than 4,600 people on the basis of the claims, according to a 2016 report by the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, a cross-party group of members of Parliament who scrutinize the department’s policies.
While some instances of fraud have been proved, many students who remained in the UK to fight the allegations in court are now winning the right to stay and challenge the accusations directly.
’Presumed guilty until proved innocent’
Tuesday’s report highlights both the judicial obstacles faced by those seeking to clear their names and the “devastating impact” of the accusations “on all aspects of their lives and families.”
The stories of several students detailed in the report also indicate multiple failings in the process of identifying suspected fraudsters, an issue previously highlighted by several appeals court judges in TOEIC rulings.
According to the report, one student was accused of cheating in a TOEIC test – and subsequently spent three years and more than £10,000 to clear his name – despite never having sat one, while another was accused of cheating at a test in Leicester, a city he had never visited.
A Home Office spokesperson told CNN on Tuesday that the government could not comment on individual cases.
’We are in an open prison’
Those whose tests were deemed “invalid” are considered unlawfully resident in the UK, with no right to study, work, drive, claim benefits, rent a house or use the National Health Service.
“The knock-on effect has derailed careers and long-term aspirations,” according to the report. “It has pushed people out of work and into poverty and debt. It has forced people out of accommodation. It has had severe impacts on physical and mental health, and family and community relationships.”
Speaking to CNN in May, Rahman described the difficulty of his situation. “We are in an open prison,” he said. “We can’t have a job … my driving license has been taken away… If you don’t have a work right, how will you survive?”
He said he has no permanent place to live and stays “one week here, one week there” with relatives and friends. “We deserve better than this,” he said. “You can’t see yourself as charity. It hurts you. It feels like somebody keeps stabbing you in the back.”
He has considered leaving the UK, but fears the allegations would follow him. “I won’t be able to go to America, Canada, any other country, because when I make an application, they will see what happened in the UK,” he said. “I’m a criminal here so I have to clear my name first.”