You come here to study and find yourself in immigration detention – that’s what has happened to some of the so-called TOEIC students, international students wrongly accused of cheating in 2014. They are being supported by Migrant Voice to campaign to clear their names. As part of Unlocking Detention, they shared with us their experiences of immigration detention and views of British justice. The blog was written by Eiri Ohtani, @EiriOhtani.
It’s midway through the discussion about the benefits of a solidarity group, when A suddenly says:
‘Well, if there was any positive thing about this campaign, I got my mum’s trust back because of it. Because the campaign exists, she now believes that this was really happening to me and I wasn’t lying to her.’
Another member of the group, B, adds by way of clarification: ‘Many people in our countries absolutely believe in British justice, and never imagine that there could be injustice under the British system. When we tell them we are being wrongly accused (by the Home Office), they think we must be lying.’
I am meeting a group of international students who have been accused of cheating on their English tests by the Home Office and have had their student visas annulled. They are fighting to clear their names and get their lives back on track.
‘The Home Office failed to ensure innocent people were not wrongly deported in an operation which saw more than 2,400 students removed from the country as a result of cheating allegations in English language tests, a major report has found.
The National Audit Office (NAO) launched an investigation earlier this year after it emerged almost 34,000 international students had been accused of cheating in English language tests, and with no proper right to challenge the decision, told they had no right to stay in the UK.
They were targeted after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in 2014 exposed systematic cheating at some colleges where candidates sat the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic), one of several that overseas students can sit to prove their English language proficiency, a visa requirement.’
Home Office failed to ensure innocent students were not wrongly detained in cheating scandal, report finds | The Independent, 24/05/2019
Migrant Voice, ‘a migrant-led organisation empowering migrants to speak out, challenge perceptions and change public debate’, supports the group. With guidance from its tenacious director, Nazek Ramadan, and her colleagues, the student group managed to draw media attention to their struggle and secured some limited traction from the Home Office and the Home Secretary. (See the list of further reading at the end of the blog for more information.)
The consequences of the Home Office accusations have been severe. Some of the students in the group have found themselves locked up in immigration detention, after heavy-handed raids at home. Some have already been removed or simply given up. Legal fees for appeals are expensive and, of course, not everyone can afford it. These are some of the costs of seeking justice, and a somewhat familiar tale for people who have been wronged by the Home Office.
‘Preparing for immigration detention’
People willing to ‘do something’ about immigration detention often want to do something in detention centres. But there is a huge unmet need that is not often talked about: preparing people for immigration detention. That’s what I have come to do at Migrant Voice’s office. When I arrive at their campaign meeting on the hottest day in late July, there is frustration in the room. Although a recent APPG report recommended a moratorium on enforcement for students who are in the appeal process, the students are still at risk of detention and removal. Many must regularly report to the Home Office, each time not knowing whether they will be able to return home or be detained.
Explaining immigration detention to a group of anxious people is emotionally taxing. Reading from a script that says ‘27,000 people are detained every year’ makes you feel as though you are playing a part in the government’s deliberate plot to paralyse people with fear. Unlike immigration detention centres, this fear is invisible and renders invisible the vast numbers of individuals, families or groups dispersed across the UK who live in fear of immigration detention. It takes a huge psychological toll on everyone.
Luckily, I have Right to Remain’s zine with me, a vital resource and the last line of defence for communities threatened with detention. Written with ‘experts-by-experience’ who were themselves detained, the zine goes beyond equipping people with practical advice: it guides them into developing a mutual support system that can be relied upon as a safeguard. Though even talking about the threat of detention in a safe space is hard, it gives a little boost to their sense of solidarity and togetherness.
Having migrants’ variety of voices heard and listened to
In an otherwise bleak space, Migrant Voice and others’ facilitating role in this recent shift towards the emergence of grassroot solidarity groups gives me some small hope. As a migrant myself, it’s a relief to see increasing numbers of fellow migrants taking the lead in the fight against the UK government’s Hostile Environment policy. It is powerful, and also disruptive in a good way, when the people who are directly affected, rather than professional NGO staff, take centre stage.
Nazek says “When the students first came to us, we found it hard to believe that this kind of injustice could be happening in the UK today. We felt so strongly about it that we had to do what we could. A big part of that has been providing a space for them to come and speak and be listened to, and to be valued and respected for the people who they are – then working with them to tell their stories in a way anyone can understand. We’ve been calling for a very simple solution – for all these students to have the chance to sit a new test. If they pass, they should get their visa back and be allowed to restart their lives.”
At a follow-up meeting, we have more time for in-depth discussions about the solidarity and shared experiences of the group in the face of the threat of immigration detention. The students are frustrated by the lack of attention given to their plight by the general public. At one point, someone points out ‘Imagine this was happening to Americans, Europeans, white migrants…’. His voice trails off and we become silent. The group members are composed of Commonwealth nationals, from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, previously colonised by Britain. It is a thought that has crossed my mind too – immigration laws and rules, after all, stem from the society which is underpinned by often unacknowledged racial hierarchy.
Thank you @DetentionForum for giving us a great information how to avoid detention. And thank you to @MigrantVoiceUK for facilities this useful session. @EiriOhtani was a great speaker and gave lot of great information.
— English Language Test Victims (@ToeicV) July 25, 2019
I suspect there are probably additional explanations for this relative lack of attention. The students are no doubt victims of injustice but they do not fit the accepted stereotype of the victim: rather than appearing vulnerable, powerless, voiceless, the students are vocal and articulate. Some of them come from relatively well-off families, well-off enough to be able to pay for education in the UK. I wonder if that unspoken class element makes it hard for the general public to ‘place’ them in their imaginary of migrants.
Another possible complication is that while they are here in the UK and are migrants (though some might object that international students are not migrants – I have been told that before), they wanted to be here only temporarily, usually to get qualifications, and many can’t wait to go back home or somewhere else. But they are stuck, in limbo, because without the qualifications they have set out to obtain here, they cannot move onto their next stage of their life plan. How we understand, interact and build relationships with people who are temporarily here as migrants on their own volition but who wish to see their lives unfolding somewhere else is not something we’ve often talked about or dealt with in migration space. We don’t have a wide enough range of vocabularies to describe changing patterns of human mobility and vastly different motives that drive people to move – yet.
Image of Britain – before and after immigration detention
We talked about how the students had felt when they first arrived in the UK and their overwhelmingly positive feelings. Perhaps their words might strike some as naïve or even banal, but they still reminded me of a sense of hope many people have when they move, something I have completely forgotten about. Having worked in this area far too long, I accept I am too jaded. However, I, too, did have some sense of hope when I first arrived in Germany, and then when, after a few years, moved to London, almost 30 years ago. We must be careful though to recognise that every person’s hope is unique and, more importantly, human mobility does not always come with hope. Mine was a result of a myriad of privileges and opportunities that I was born into. Others have no choice but to hope when they move, because staying where they are is not an option.
Of course, these ideas were shattered when they were accused of fraud and found themselves fighting to clear their names or thrown into immigration detention.
One of the most profound impacts of their experience is strained family relationships. Many were caught off guard by their families’ utter refusals to believe their stories, because of their unshakeable trust in the British system.
‘When they said we’d take you to detention, I thought it would be like a house. But it was a prison.’
B says he initially wanted to go to the US or Canada to study. It was his father, who has high regard for the UK’s democracy and parliament, who insisted on the UK as his son’s educational destination. After their initial disbelief at what had happened to his son, B’s parents are now supportive of the campaign. His father says ‘If you believe that you didn’t do anything wrong, you must finish this battle before coming back. It is about your future – otherwise you need to carry this blame the rest of your life.’ His mother however has no knowledge of the fact that he was in detention: she has been shielded from it, B says.
‘I thought in Britain, detention should be something different. It’s not something that should be happening here.’
C confesses that when he was initially detained, he felt a tinge of excitement because nobody in his family had ever been to prison. It was when he phoned his brother and he started crying as he told him what had happened that the reality dawned on him. Eventually the rest of the family found out and their response was not exactly encouraging: ‘If this is happening, you are not coming back to our house’. C adds ‘My family lives in a small village, I don’t come from an urban area. People there don’t understand what English language test is or what the Home Office does, but they do understand the word ‘fraud’’.
‘They said ‘This is the room’, I thought where is the bed? It was just a mattress. The toilet was in the same cell, with no privacy.’
It turns out that they are the lucky ones. Some have been completely disowned by their families, who say, ‘They have brought shame on us and used all the family’s fortune.’ I am told of one of their members, who has returned to his home country, is street homeless as his family has completely rejected him.
I ask about their huge diaspora communities in the UK? Experiences have been mixed and complicated. ‘I was disappointed when Imam said to me, why are you staying here? With your children? His attitude was negative.’ ‘I was told ‘You are a burden on my country.’ They didn’t believe what happened to us at first’.
Is your solidarity borderless?
Their struggle continues and the campaign has provided a platform to advocate for themselves. Pooling their knowledge and experience has helped the campaign to find direction and given strength to the members of the group to carry on.
D talks about how she met the others for the first time at the parliamentary event:
‘I saw them at the event and was surprised. There were these people who seemed to know what they are talking about and they knew each other. I introduced myself and joined the group. Before, I was just alone and had no family or friends to speak to share the worry. After meeting them, now I have a hope.’
C adds ‘The second time I was in detention, as a team you got me out, you got me released after a few days. The first time I was in detention, I was there over 100 days.’
Hearing this, D points at another member with a smile. ‘I now text you, when I go signing (to the reporting centre). We support each other.’
Looking back on parliamentary lobbying they have done, B says, ‘The fact that we have been able to apply pressure to the government is giving us hope. Lots of people say Parliamentarians can’t do anything, but we created this opportunity now. We can do this.’
The group is aware that their India-Bangladesh-Pakistan solidarity group doesn’t necessarily mirror the countries’ not so straightforward diplomatic relationships with each other. Someone says with a laugh, ‘If not for our experience here in the UK, you probably wouldn’t have seen some of us working together like this.’ This comment leads to other interesting topics that I wish I had more time to delve into. What do they think of the members of their diaspora community working for immigration enforcement, locking you up, assessing your cases and working at the reporting centres? What’s their views of Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, whose families have immigrant background?
I leave the room wondering what stories they will be telling others about British justice and immigration detention when they win their battles and return home. Another question that lingers in my mind was whether these groups’ newly found solidarity will be extended to other groups of migrants and communities also experiencing injustice, regardless of their immigration status or other circumstances. Truly borderless solidarity is the only tool we might have for a truly just and humane world – but it still feels elusive.
- You can order Right to Remain’s immigration detention zine from their webpage. Highly recommended!
- Jan 2019: Financial Times long read about the issue and campaign
- Mar 2019: ITV News interviews with students affected and Stephen Timms
- May 2019: Amelia Gentleman interview with Raja Noman
- May 2019: Independent article on the damning National Audit Office report on the issue (the video at the top is a clip from “Inquisition”, the film about the TOEIC students)
- July 2019: Independent article on the report by the APPG on TOEIC, which exposed some very concerning information about the Home Office actions on this matter in 2014
- September 2019: Mirror article about the report by the Public Accounts Committee, which described the Govt’s handling of the matter as “shameful”