Student visa cheat claims 'putting our lives on hold'

By Anna Collinson and Adam Eley
BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme

Image caption,
Fatema Chowdhury said she was "desperate" to speak to someone at the Home Office to "prove my innocence"

Foreign students accused of cheating on English language tests have told the BBC they have been left in limbo for years - unable to work or use the NHS.

The Home Office has cancelled 36,000 student visas since 2014 after cheating was uncovered at test centres.

But Labour MP Stephen Timms said many had been falsely accused, and given no opportunity to clear their name.

The government said the home secretary has "listened to the points raised... and has asked for further advice".

The students were required to take the test to extend their studies in the UK beyond their original student visa - which typically lasted from one to three years.

They would also have had to complete a separate English language test, usually taken in their home country, before initially being accepted to come to the UK to study.

'My dreams are gone'

Fatema Chowdhury came to the UK from Bangladesh in 2010 and finished her law degree in 2014 at the University of London.

She told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme she was at one stage detained for a week after being accused of cheating in the English test, which she denies.

She has not been told to leave the UK, but while remaining in the country cannot work or use the NHS for free.

"During my delivery last year they charged me £14,000 just to have a baby," she explained.

She said her "dreams and hopes" were now gone, and she was "desperate" to speak to someone at the Home Office to "prove my innocence", but after four years of trying "there is no hope".

She said no evidence of her alleged cheating had been presented to her.

'A disgrace'

As a result, the Home Office ordered the US firm providing the exams, Educational Testing Service (ETS), to check more than 58,000 tests taken between 2011 and 2014.

It said voice-recognition software suggested that proxy test-takers were used in more than 30,000 cases. More than 1,000 people were removed from the country as a result of the investigation.

Image caption,
Labour MP Stephen Timms said the Home Office should now allow students to take a "reliable" English test

Mr Timms, MP for East Ham, told Victoria Derbyshire the treatment of the students had been "a disgrace".

"They trusted Britain to provide them with a decent education. Instead, they've been falsely accused of cheating and been given no chance to appeal.

"They've been left in limbo for years."

He said the Home Office should now allow students to take a "reliable" English test.

"If they fail, fine. But if they pass, they should be given a visa back in order that they can complete their studies."

'Like an open prison'

A second person accused of cheating, Wahid Rahman, said he had already completed another, similar English test and sent the results to the Home Office.

"But still they're saying, 'we're sticking with our decision'," he said.

"How else can I prove that I don't need a middleman to speak English on behalf of me?," he said, describing the Home Office's approach as "a mix of denial, obfuscation and delay".

The 29-year-old, originally from Bangladesh, received the cheating allegation in 2014 after graduating from Anglia Ruskin University in marketing and innovation.

Image caption,
Wahid Rahman says he is unable to rent, travel or study further

"All my rights have been taken away.

"No jobs, no NHS, I'm not allowed to rent, I'm not allowed to travel, my driving licence has been taken away, I cannot study further. It's just like an open prison.

"I do work with charities but it's unpaid. I'm so lucky to have a good family who can support me."

'Hope it's the right decision'

The organisation Migrant Voice said "the only solution now is a political one.

"This is a textbook example of this government punishing innocent people in service of the hostile environment, but the home secretary [Sajid Javid] has the power to put some of it right."

Mr Timms said he had spoken to Mr Javid on the issue, saying the minister had told him he was "sympathetic and that he is going to make a decision about this".

"I hope it's the right decision," he added.

The Home Office said in a statement: "The 2014 investigation into the abuse of English language testing revealed systemic cheating which was indicative of significant organised fraud.

"The scale of the abuse is shown by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions, including four individuals convicted earlier this month of conspiracy to commit fraud.

"We have reformed the system to tackle abuse.

"The Home Secretary has listened to the points raised by MPs and other groups and has asked for further advice from the department."

The ETS has been contacted for comment.

It has previously told the BBC it "does everything it can to detect and prevent" cheating.

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