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“This is a complete nightmare”: international students rely on London food bank

One food bank in London has revealed it is feeding over 1,000 international students a week – some of whom are living hundreds of miles from the university they are enrolled at.

Food bankNewham Community Project prepares hundreds of parcels for international students. Photo: Newham Community Project

"I was working in KFC but they made me redundant"

With employers making staff redundant due to Covid-19, many international students are struggling to get by as they have little recourse to government support, as well as many facing pressure to pay tuition fees they can no longer afford.

The Newham Community Project, which runs the food bank in East London, has told The PIE News it is spending £3,000-4,000 a week on food.

Run by Elyas Ismail, his wife and a team of volunteers, the group has gone from providing 30-40 hot meals a day last year to supporting well over 1,000 students.

“Our intention was: we would carry this on until the end of Ramadan. And then once the fasting was over, we were going to stop,” relates Ismail.

“By the fourth week, we were getting 800 or 900 students”

“But then we saw the need out there and we saw the desperation. By the fourth week, we were getting 800 or 900 students.”

In February for the first time, the food bank reached capacity and had to start turning people away.

“We’re not talking about rich students. We’re talking about poor students. They remortgaged their land to come here, remortgaged their house. They borrowed money on high interest rates,” he tells The PIE.

“And then all of a sudden you get this [first] lockdown. At that time, India was even worse than the situation [in the UK]. They were confused. There were students who were suicidal,” he remembers.

He highlighted cases of students begging him for £50, saying they wanted to go out to look for work but didn’t even have the money to travel. “This is a complete nightmare,” he says.

Elyas Ismail sorts through food to be given to students. Photo: Newham Community Project

University support

But for Ismail, the lack of involvement from universities has been a surprise.

“People don’t come and say, do you need any help? Do you need any financial help? Nothing at all. They know we’re a small charity,” he said.

He explained that many of the universities the students at the food bank were attending are not based in London, with some coming from institutions as far afield as Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Students have flocked particularly to Newham, which is home to a large South Asian community, in the hopes they will be able to find work, he says.

This includes signing up as couriers for low-paying delivery app companies. People are also more willing to turn a blind eye to cheaper but overcrowded housing, he suggests.

“They’ll have 15-20 of them in a three or four bedroom house with four to six of them in each room” Ismail explains. “They know that they can stay 20 in a house and nobody’s going to grass.”

In light of the pandemic, he points out this can also represent a health crisis. “I know for a fact there’s students out there who should be isolating,” he says.

“I know for a fact there’s students out there who should be isolating”

“But they can’t afford to isolate. They do delivery jobs to earn £15-20 for six hours of work. That’s how bad it is.”

While students are required to prove they have income to support themselves in order to acquire visas, many do not have ready access to this money, or have seen their families need to use these funds due to the pandemic eroding jobs and business.

The National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK has also pointed out that Indian students may not be aware of the cost of living when applying to study in the UK.

They blame this on “a number of dubious agents operating in the Indian market” that will “say whatever they need to do in order to get students to come over”.

Funding rejection

It’s pretty hard to get here from India. I’m from a middle class family, so it’s hard to get a lot of money to study,” Shaheel Mubarak, an Indian MBA student, tells The PIE.

I managed to get some loans from banks, but all of them are due now and I can’t pay back anything because of the pandemic. I was working in KFC but they made me redundant.”

Mubarak said that he had tried “many times” to get some financial support from his university but had been rejected.

“They asked for a lot of different evidence that we are in a really hard situation, but I didn’t know how to explain that,” he said.

He shares that he has asked for an extension on his outstanding tuition fees. I asked them to extend the due for the fees, but the said they cannot extend anymore,” Mubarak says.

“They said you have to pay the money within the due date, otherwise we will take action.

“Most of the students are hardly paying their rent. Even the landlords don’t accept their request to extend their payments.

Top reasons for rejection were: already had sufficient funds or evidence was missing in applications

Speaking with The PIE, UUKi’s Vivienne Stern affirmed that requesting financial support should not impact a student’s immigration status.

And while, prior to Covid-19, universities did not generally offer financial assistance to international students, most have changed this approach, she noted.

Among universities that supplied The PIE with data about international student applications for hardship funds, on average, just under one-third of applications were rejected.

Top reasons for rejection were that students already had sufficient funds or that evidence was missing in their applications.

Two universities said that students had failed provide missing evidence, despite requests from their teams.

One student The PIE spoke with, whose application had been rejected, said that they were unable to provide the evidence the university had asked for, particularly: requests for the number of hours they had been working before they were made redundant.

They would not comment further as to why they could not provide the information but implied that they had been working over the 20-hour limit for Tier 4 visa holders.

At least one university is also rejecting applications if students have outstanding unpaid tuition fees, according to a freedom of information request for information submitted.

Students queue outside the food bank in Newham. Photo: Newham Community Project

Sector response

UUKi director Stern explains that most universities are making funds available, to her knowledge:

I have not come across a single university that doesn’t have a hardship fund which international students are able to access,” she says.

“Most universities we contacted were not aware that students were currently using the Newham foodbank,” she adds – UUKi has been liaising with Ismail.

I don’t believe that’s a communication failure,” adds Stern. “There are students who aren’t coming forward for a variety of reasons. And those are probably quite complex and various.”

“There are students who aren’t coming forward for a variety of reasons”

She praised the scale of effort being made by universities, adding that they were “working to support their international students, and it’s not a kind of tokenistic gesture. It’s not that they’re doing the bare minimum. The efforts they’re making are I think pretty extraordinary.”

UUKi is in contact with the Newham Community Group and Stern reminded that support for international students is available via student unions, faculties at schools, social media sites, live sessions, webinars and in some cases through community groups, as well as the UKCISA confidential helpline.

A taskforce chaired by UUKi and London Higher has also been created to “consider best practice for supporting international student hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Further data on support

A survey conducted last June by the NGO Migrant Rights Network and campaign group Unis Resist Border Controls of 124 students across 31 UK universities revealed 81 had approached their university for support, advice and hardship funds.

“Of these, 38 received some form of support, advice and/or hardship fund,” it notes. “There were 12 who were rejected for hardship funds, and 28 who at the time of the study were awaiting a response.”

According to this survey, 56% of the students said they were destitute or at risk of becoming destitute, with some “too afraid to seek out help when needed for fear that this may impact upon their immigration status”.

The two groups have called for a tuition fee amnesty for Tier 4 students, but URBC’s Sanaz Raji states that the focus should not be on students using food banks but long-standing issues related to the marketisation of high education and unfair immigration policies.

“It’s not as if this didn’t happen prior to Covid”

“It’s not as if this didn’t happen prior to Covid,” she says, disputing claims from UUKi that universities are supporting their international cohorts.

“They have done nothing. We have case upon case of universities shirking their pastoral responsibility to international students,” she claims.

Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham where the Newham food bank is located, has additionally called for universities – as well as the government – to improve support for international students in need.

“They cannot avoid the responsibility. They have the duty of care,” he says. “They have taken very large sums of money from these students. Now the universities need to step up to recognise their responsibilities.”

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