“I went into the kitchen and one of my daughters was holding a knife. She wanted to cut open her wrists. I begged her to stop, I can’t carry on living without her.”
Asiya Gul Iram and her two daughters are among tens of thousands who claim that their lives have been destroyed by a single decision made by the UK Home Office.
Living together in a house they barely leave, the three educated women are refused work and forced to depend upon the charity of friends to survive. Over the five grinding years since the allegation made against them, the constant threat of detainment and deportation has taken a heavy toll.
Asiya has developed sciatica in her back and carpal tunnel syndrome in both her hands, making it painful to move. Panic attacks come at night. Asiya understands her daughter’s suicidal impulses because she shares them.
“I cannot stay here and I cannot go back. The final thing is that I can die. I have suicidal thoughts, the only thing that stops me is the fear of God. Other than that, I could have died a long time ago,” she said.
The accusation came to Janibush Piyas in a letter. It informed him that his settled status had been revoked and that he and his wife had 28 days to leave the country.
Their then two year old son, born in the UK, was registered as a British citizen. Janibush has spent five years and £40K unsuccessfully fighting the decision, earning the money to pay for his legal fees and support his family by delivering pizzas. The family of four share a single bedroom in their Woking flat.
Raja Noman Hussein’s accusation arrived in the form of three police vans containing around 20 officers, who knocked on his door at 5 o’clock in the morning. They swept the rooms of his house, checking the IDs of his flatmates.
The officer who inspected Raja’s paused before speaking into his radio: “Target achieved.” He was taken to Brook House immigration removal centre where he was locked away for four months. After release he spent the next five years fighting his case. He finds it hard to get to sleep at night.
Sheikh Amin was seized from his home by 12 officers at 8am. He was taken to Brook House for the next seven days, before his release and his own five year legal battle.
His fate was fortunate compared to some he met while in detention. Despite their protestations of innocence, they were placed on chartered flights and removed from the UK.
The four here, and around 34,000 more, came to Britain as international students. The charge made against them is that they cheated on an English language test — the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
The cases that have made it to the courts have shown that the evidence behind the accusations is either non-existent, or deeply flawed.
Migrant Voice, a charity which has been campaigning for the victims since 2017, has said that in some cases students have been accused of cheating in one test centre while having proof they sat the test in another.
“The main, really the only, evidence they brought against me was the record of my test,” said Raja.
“It gave the location where I did the exam as Leicester and my nationality as Bangladeshi. I did the exam in London and I’m from Pakistan.
“In fact, on the day I did the exam the UK border force came to inspect my test centre. The test took place in front of them.”
Amin has a similar story to hand. The ETS, the American company which runs the TOEIC exams, claims that he took his exam in Leicester.
But his bank records for that day show that he bought food from a KFC in Stratford and a Docklands Light Railway ticket to his academy in Mile End.
Others among the accused had never sat the test at all. Last year three reports were released by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the scandal. All three were damning, and called for urgent action.
Despite all of this, the Home Office continues to prosecute the students.
“It’s a massive scandal, and the scale of it is huge, it’s comparable to Windrush,” said Labour MP and chair of the TOEIC APPG Stephen Timms. “And the scale of the damage caused — the awful hardship imposed upon tens of thousands of people — is bound to be greater.
“The Home Office has wasted a fortune defending appeals when it has no reliable evidence against the appellants at all. It’s the most appalling injustice that has been inflicted on thousands of entirely innocent overseas students, whose only mistake was to trust Britain to provide them with an education.”
When Asiya and her family moved to the UK in 2007, it was to escape. Her husband wanted to marry her daughters to his older cousins back in Pakistan, but she insisted they come to Britain to be educated.
He reluctantly agreed to the move. She commuted into Central London every day from their West Drayton home to study business administration before moving on to a bachelors degree in accountancy.
“I wanted to get a good education from this country so that when I did go back home, I would get a good job and be independent,” she said.
Then in January 2015, Asiya received her allegation in the post. Neither she, nor any other accused student, were granted an in-country right of appeal. Her life quickly collapsed.
Asiya, who didn’t have enough money for a lawyer, was forced to represent herself in her 2017 asylum claim. The application was rejected.
She later made two more claims on the back of a human rights application. The first was rejected in July 2018, and the second, an appeal to reconsider the case in light of further evidence, was rejected in March of this year.
After the rejection of the July human rights application, Asiya’s daughters were detained while reporting to the Home Office. They were handcuffed and interrogated, before being taken to Harmondsworth immigration removal centre.
The centre’s officers informed them that their deportation flights would take them to Pakistan within a few days, but they were released after a week. They now live in fear of being detained again.
The argument made by the Home Office to the court has been consistent throughout all of Asiya’s applications: Asiya was a resourceful and well-qualified woman and would be able to fend for herself.
Asiya insists that sending her home would amount to a death sentence.
For other students the outlook is not quite as grim, but in spite of the fact that many have lived for five years in the UK without the right to work, rent or access the NHS, the prospect of returning home with a black mark against their names is more dispiriting still.
“If I go back to my country now I can’t apply to go anywhere else in the world, because in their eyes I’ve deceived the UK government. So my life is absolutely gone,” Janibush said.
Amin has already applied for a job in his native Bangladesh, only to be rejected after answering truthfully when asked if he’d ever faced any legal problems.
It is not just their job prospects that have suffered at home. Many have anglophile relatives who impressed upon their children from a young age the benefits of a British education, and were happy to pay eye-watering international student fees to help them get it. Many of them simply refuse to believe that the UK government could falsely accuse anyone of something so serious.
“My parents told me: ‘Until you prove your innocence, don’t come back to us,’” said Janibush.
For others, familial rifts have set into scars, marking their relationships forever.
“At one point I told my dad I wanted to come home, I didn’t want to stay in this painful life, in this dreadful situation,” Raja said. “He told me that I can come back anytime, but I wasn’t to come to his home.”
Raja’s dad has since suffered a stroke and is unable to walk and talk.
“My dad just isn’t there anymore like the person who used to talk to me for hours on end. I used to have the best time with my Mum and my Dad. That precious time in my life is gone.”
The only prospect for those who remain is to plunge head first into a legal battle against the Home Office.
“The legal route is labyrinthine, extortionately expensive and fraught with difficulties,” said director of Migrant Voice Nazek Ramadan. “Many students have struggled to find good legal advice – and to find the funds to pay for it when they do.
“And we’ve seen many students with strong cases lose their appeals because some judges – astonishingly – continue to accept the generic, flawed six-year-old evidence presented by the Home Office and turn a blind eye to the evidence and testimony of the students themselves.
“Let the students sit a new, secure test; or interview them; or have their cases reviewed independently – any of these options would save both the students and the Home Office time and money, and allow justice to be done.
“But as long as the current Home Secretary refuses to work with us and the students towards a real solution, hundreds of innocent students will continue to suffer and see their futures slip away.”
The reason why the government are sticking to their guns, according to Paul Turner, immigration barrister and head of Imperium Chambers, is that even they have concerns surrounding the strength of their evidence, and of the competency of the ETS — the company which had run the test.
But admitting this will leave them extremely vulnerable to political and legal redress.
“As soon as the government scratched the surface of the material from the ETS, they discovered that the company had never used computers for voice testing before. On top of this, the five employees sent from the Home Office didn’t have the experience to work out if the tests were valid or not,” he said.
“It turned out that there was no chain of evidence between each test and the material held by ETS. The government had these concerns, but they hid them.
“It’s a bit like the Somme, they’ve invested so much into this that they’re hoping one last push will do. They can’t afford not to fight this, to climb down would be so damaging to them.”
With a political solution seemingly as far away as ever, the students must go it alone in a hostile environment made ever more hostile by the conditions of the pandemic.
“Many saw their support networks collapse as charities shut down and friends and family lost the means to support them,” said Ramadan. “Hearings and Home Office decisions have been delayed, leaving the students in indefinite limbo, with many terrified of catching the virus and dying far away from their families (whom they haven’t seen for years) with a black mark still against their name.”
As the pandemic wears on, the student’s fight becomes more desperate. Raja came to the UK to study business management and get an MBA, but now, after winning his case and regaining his indefinite leave to remain, he wants to study law.
“I want to know about my rights, to help those who don’t know what to do,” he said. “A lot of solicitors you go to are there for your money. They don’t care about their clients. They don’t feel their pain.”
Amin also won his indefinite leave to remain this year. With the conditions of the pandemic he has been unable to get a job, but he has been working on a student-run, student-funded campaign to push for a parliamentary solution to the TOEIC scandal.
The campaign is working closely with Stephen Timms and Migrant Voice and is penning an open letter to be sent to Boris Johnson when parliament resumes in September. Timms pressed Johnson on TOEIC last July, the Prime Minister responded that he had been made aware of the issue.
Asiya and Janibush are both still fighting. Janibush has received legal aid for his case and is preparing to go before the court once more. Asiya and her daughters are waiting for the approval of another hearing on a human rights application. With her daughter’s human rights application still pending, they fear that it may be rejected, and that they may be detained and deported without any notice.
“We’re in a desperate situation,” Asiya said. “We are helpless, we don’t know what to do.”
The Home Office has said itwill look into the cases and offer a statement in due course. Speaking to the Independent’s May Bulman this month, a spokesperson said: “The courts have consistently found that the evidence the Home Office had at the time was sufficient to take action.
“However, we acknowledge that these events took place some years ago and we have revised guidance to caseworkers to ensure that we are taking the right decisions on cases that raise family and private life issues.
“The guidance is clear: an invalid Toeic certificate in a previous application is not a mandatory ground for refusal and the caseworker decision must take all relevant factors of the application into account.”
The ETS have so far not responded to requests for comment.