London: A landmark ruling by the UK immigration tribunal has come as a huge relief for thousands of Indian students who were either deported or forced to return to India by the UK Home Office for alleged fraudulent practices in an English proficiency test.
Hardik and Sejal Shah had to leave UK and come back to Ahmedabad after their work visa was revoked
International students who undertook the Test of English for International Communication English (TOEIC) at the Educational Testing Services (ETS), an American firm contracted by the Home Office, had their visas revoked in 2014 "due to the use of deception”.
Urvi Shah, Sejal & Hardik’s lawyer and Atif Wattoo, Qadir’s solicitor
The crackdown followed an investigation on the popular BBC Panorama programme, which found fraudulent methods were used during the test at one of the centres. Undercover journalists were asked to pay £500 for a guaranteed pass and proxy test takers were used at one of its centres in East London.
The documentary also showed the centre officials dictating answers to the students. Days later, the undercover 'students' received their certificate in the post where they passed the test with flying colours. This led to the Home Office deeming 46,000 tests at ETS centres as having been obtained through deception.
In the ensuing crackdown, students had their visas revoked and were asked to leave the country or face deportation. They were also given a 10-year ban from applying for a UK visa.
"The Immigration officers came in groups of 15-20 in the wee hours of the morning, knocking at doors and picking up students and their family, taking them to detention centres, sometimes separate centers, and they were interrogated and threatened with dire consequences if they did not leave the country," Urvi Shah of Vision Solicitors told Mid-day, who represented one of the Indians deported.
But now the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) has given a decision in the favour of the students. “Apart from the limited hearsay evidence, there was no evidence from the protagonist in this saga, the ETS organisation. The Secretary of State has not discharged the legal burden of establishing that either appellant procured his [English language] certificate by dishonesty,” the tribunal ruled.
Secretary of State Theresa May, who heads the Home Office, will now face a parliamentary hearing on the controversial deportations. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Office Select Committee and the senior-most Indian origin MP in the UK Parliament, has promised to launch an investigation into the Home Office contracts process as a result of this investigation.
“We are very disappointed by the decision,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “The investigation into the abuse of English language testing in 2014 revealed extremely serious, large scale, organised fraud.”
The ruling brings a huge relief to young Indians like Sejal and Hardik Shah, who had to leave the country in July 2014 with their child and return to Ahmedabad after the Home Office revoked their Tier 2 visa (work visa) saying Sejal had used ETS for her language proficiency test when she applied for her degree three years ago and was hence deemed that she “had used deception to gain leave to remain in the UK.” Sejal holds a degree from the University of Wales: Trinity Saint David, and had to take the test prior to getting admission into the course.
“I informed the officer that I was asked by the university to take this test before they could give me admission and the earliest date available was with ETS and hence I gave the test there,’ said Sejal. “The other IELTS centre had a waiting period of 4 to 6 weeks, which would have been too late for me.”
After finishing her degree and getting a work visa, she joined Speiuss Ltd as a Quality Assurance Manager. Her husband and child were residents in the UK as her dependants. During the crackdown, officials interviewed her at her workplace and the conversations took place in English, which baffled Sejal that they still decided to revoke her visa.
“At the end of the interrogation, my employer was warned by the Enforcement officer that if I was not terminated immediately their sponsorship licence will be cancelled. So my employer had to terminate my employment and my Cos (certificate of sponsorship) was cancelled,” says Sejal. The unemployment made it difficult for the family to survive in the UK. The couple did not want to be further humiliated and decided to leave the UK voluntarily and fight for justice from India.
“It wasn't easy to return to India. We have not told anyone except close family,” Hardik told mid-day.
Their lawyer Urvi Shah said the ruling is a huge respite and that they will pursue this Sejal and Hardik get justice and due compensation for humiliation of being labelled as fraudsters and the hardship they had to face “due to such a baseless and erratic decision by the Secretary of State Home department Office.”
Another appellant Ihsan Qadir, an accountancy student who was detained at the airport on his return to UK from a short holiday in Pakistan and whose case was also presented before the tribunal, was also found to be speaking excellent English.
“We found no indication of invention, exaggeration or evasiveness. The Appellant was attentive to all questions and provided his answers in a careful, pensive fashion. He at all times sought to engage with the Tribunal and clearly realised the importance of telling the truth. His answers to the vast majority of questions were of appropriate length, comprehensible and intelligible,” said Justice McCloskey.
Qadir's solicitor Atif Wattoo told mid-day, “There were more than 100 cases of foreign students being deported or held in detention for months because they had taken an ETS English test. The Home Office can go in appeal but I feel it will be difficult as there is no error in judgment. The judgment was based on evidence. We will fight till justice is served.”