UK's 'Erratic and Hostile' Immigration Rules Put Indian Students in Bind

The rejection of Cambridge scholar Asiya Islam's application to secure permanent residency in the UK is symptomatic of the problems students face.

London: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised that his government would put “people before passports”, as he rolls out a lower wage threshold and re-hauls visa policies to attract the best talent from across the world. Yet there are fears that the erratic and hostile attitude of the Home Office towards migrants is damaging Britain’s reputation as a welcoming nation.

A junior scholar at the University of Cambridge’s application to secure her permanent residency in the UK after the mandatory ten year period is symptomatic of this.

Ten years ago, Asiya Islam, a graduate of Aligarh Muslim University, enrolled in a postgraduate programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She then did a PhD at the University of Cambridge on a Gates Scholarship. Last year she was awarded a three-year junior research fellowship at Newnham College at the university.

Islam applied for an indefinite leave period to remain in Britan in September 2019 and paid an additional £800 for super priority next-day visa processing but received a response only after five weeks. Much to her shock, she was refused on the grounds that she was out of the country for more than 540 days over the course of the decade.

Islam’s thesis on ‘Gender, Class, and Labour in the New Economy of Urban India’ saw her spend time between 4 July 2016 to 1 June 2017 in New Delhi to conduct fieldwork, a crucial part of any doctoral programme and accounted for 320 of the 645 days she stayed away from the UK.

Speaking to The Wire, Islam said, “The letter went on to say how I’m still young and could go back and live in India and ‘reintegrate into life and society in India’ and how I can also stay in touch with my friends here through ‘modern means of communication’.”

With just a few days to appeal against this decision, Islam engaged legal help, adding to her costs. “The entire process cost me more than £3500, a huge amount for someone who has just completed her PhD,” says Islam.

Asiya Islam. Photo: Author provided

Her appeal was based on two grounds: that there was a careless assessment of the evidence, and that the exceptional circumstances discretion was not applied to the 540 days limit in her case. She also attached letters from the university and head of department explaining that she was on official leave to do her fieldwork in India even while being enrolled at the university.

“Before going away for the fieldwork, I enquired with the International Student Visa team at the university whether this would affect my residency application. They contacted the Home Office, which assured us that having excess absence does not automatically disqualify an applicant and they will consider the duration of fieldwork when taking the application into consideration,” Islam told The Wire.

In December, an open letter signed by more than 25o academics urged the home secretary, Priti Patel, to “exercise appropriate discretion” in Islam’s case as “her research is an asset to the UK and its academic community, yet her very success in academic fieldwork is now being held against her”. Patel was appointed as an Indian diaspora champion by former prime minister David Cameron. MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner, also wrote to the home secretary about Islam’s case but received no response.

A Freedom of Information request made by Islam found that from her entire application file, only the application letter was forwarded to the officer for decision making without any supporting evidence. “At no point did they consider the evidence at all,” she said shocked by the cursory evaluation of her painstakingly put together visa application.

But Islam will never know if her appeal would have overturned this decision. As her visa was due for expiry on 31 January 2020, and appeals can drag on for many months, she was left with little option but to apply for a general work visa available to non-EU citizens who have been offered a skilled job called the Tier 2 visa, to be able to work and secure rental accommodation. Now, she has lost out on the right to apply for permanent residency as she could only apply for the tier 2 visa after she withdrew her appeal, and has a visa valid until only 2022, when her contract with the university ends.

Not an isolated case

Islam’s case is not an isolated one. A post-doctoral engineering scholar from India at the University of Oxford, who chose not to give his name, has to apply for his visa extension every year for his three-year position at the university. This means, additional costs of premium visa processing service, bringing it to £1200.

“Let’s not also forget that those with an Indian passport need a Schengen visa to travel to conferences in Europe, which is an important part of scientific and academic work. But that application is also constrained by your UK visa,” he told The Wire. Indian passport holders with UK residency permits (non-tourist visa) can only apply for a Schengen visa (normally of six months in duration) with the strict condition that their UK residency permit is valid of at least another three months beyond the date they plan to leave the Schengen Area.

“All this is not just expensive and time-consuming but also restraining on so many fronts,” said the young scholar, who hopes to make Oxford his new home.

Indian students to the UK on a rise

There has been a steady influx of students from India going to the UK, with 2019 statistics showing that more than 30,000 Indian students received a study visa (Tier 4 category). This was up by 19,000 from the previous year. They also pay higher fees than locals and are often seen as ‘cash cows’.

This rides on the back of the UK government’s recent announcement of a new ‘graduate’ route for immigration, where eligible students can avail a post-study visa that will allow them to work or look for work in any career for two years after completing their studies and then switch to a skilled work visa if they find a job that meets the criteria of that route. Until recently, students were given visas that expired at the end of their course and were expected to return to their home countries once they finished their study, without any opportunity to work in the UK. This new scheme will be applicable to the September 2020-21 intake of students and is still in initial stages.

The British fear that international students want to stay on, but that may not be necessarily true. Sanam Arora, founder and chairperson of National Indian Student and Alumni Union (NISAU) told The Wire that research shows that most students do not want to settle in the UK but gain some international work experience before they return to India. “We urge the Home Office to look at settlement application from scholars in the context of the demands of their studies and affiliations to universities when assessing them,”  he said. The NISAU had campaigned relentlessly for the post-study visa. “Indian students are one of the biggest consumers of international education and should be at the heart of the immigration policymaking,” said Arora.

Empty rhetoric?

The home secretary has promised that this new route “will mean talented international students, whether in science and maths or technology and engineering, can study in the UK and then gain valuable work experience as they go on to build successful careers”.

But some find this nothing more than an ‘empty rhetoric’ as they struggle to make this country, where they have spent many years building their career and friendships, their new home.

File photo of Priti Patel. Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

Home secretary Priti Patel. Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville

In a recent parliamentary debate, Home Office minister Kevin Foster indicated that British “citizenship is a privilege, not a right”. Many argue that this only indicates the Home Office’s hostile attitude towards immigrants who have devoted many years to this country and hope to make it their permanent home.

“It’s not necessarily a complete disaster if I have to return to India. But I have spent ten years of my life here, have worked in the UK and contributed to the research here, and so I believe I should have a right to live here,” said Islam.

Her thoughts are echoed among many others who are caught in the chaos of the UK immigration system.

New points-based system announced

On Wednesday, the UK announced a new points-based immigration system which takes effect from January 2021. This new global system will offer visas to EU and non-EU citizens alike, based on points assigned to specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions and promises to give top priority to scientists, engineers and academics.

Calling it a “historic moment” Patel said, “We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential. By introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down.”

Patel also admitted that under the new immigration rules she is proposing, her own parents may not have been admitted to the UK.

However, some see it as a positive move. Baroness Usha Prashar of Runnymede, who is the chairperson of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) UK, said, “Majority of the Indian Businesses in the UK require skilled manpower. The new points-based immigration system coupled with the lower salary threshold is a positive move. This has been a long-standing demand of FICCI members. The new system will benefit not just qualified professionals from India but also large number of Indian students in the UK universities.”