In 2014, a documentary filmed by the BBC’s Panorama exposed a group rigging TOEIC exams, which are used to prove language abilities for immigration to the UK.
“This is a case that the Home Office has got very, very badly wrong. And they need to put it right”
A subsequent investigation by ETS, who administer TOEIC, revealed thousands more cases of alleged cheating that resulted in the Home Office revoking the visas of almost 34,000 students.
“It had since become clear that many of those students, almost certainly most of them, were entirely innocent and they’ve been left in limbo for the last six years, not able to study, not able to work,” Stephen Timms, the MP who presented the letter to the prime minister on behalf of the students, told The PIE News.
“It’s a disgrace. Exactly like the Windrush scandal, this is a case that the Home Office has got very, very badly wrong. And they need to put it right.”
While many of the students who wished to attend the protest were unable to do so due to Covid-19 rules, those that did spoke about how being accused of cheating on the exams and the resulting fallout has caused serious physical and mental health issues, bankruptcy, separation of families, and taken away six years of their lives.
“I was always a good student. I did my chemistry bachelor’s back home and I finished my master’s in the UK. I have my IELTS score. I have my Pearson’s [PTE] score,” said one of the students involved, Shana Shaikh.
“It’s like I have done a huge crime in this country without being proven guilty or without any chance to prove that I am innocent,” she continued.
“My future is gone because this is the age where people are settling down. But I’m still struggling to prove myself innocent for a thing which I have never done and would never do because I have a sufficient knowledge of the language.”
Some students describe not knowing that there was an issue with their TOEIC results until years later.
Another student, Nomi Raja was unaware he had been caught up in the scandal until immigration officers arrived at his house one morning in 2015.
“They banged on my door. They asked for my ID and then they said ‘we need to take you with us’,” he recalled.
“I asked what I had done, but they refused to answer. And they said we need to take you for a few days and then later we’ll see what we’re going to do. I was in detention for 125 days.”
In February 2019 – almost five years later – he was finally granted in-country right of appeal.
“I won my case after five and a half years and it cost me over £30,000 in legal costs to get all my rights back for a crime which I never committed,” he said.
The students have received backing from several MPs, including Stephen Timms, the charity Migrant Voice and education groups.
The National Union of Students’ president Larissa Kennedy told The PIE that the NUS “fully support” the students.
“It’s good to see that the Home Office has made a few concessions on this matter this year, in response to pressure from ourselves and legal firms,” said Migrant Voice director, Nazek Ramadan.
“I won my case after five and a half years and it cost me over £30,000 in legal costs”
“We very much hope that these are just the prelude to a genuine solution, laid out in the letter from the students, that can finally put an end to this injustice.”
The students too are hopeful that their latest efforts will lead to concrete action on the part of the government.
“I profoundly believe that the prime minister will keep his promise to listen and put things right,” said student Sheikh Shariful Amin.
A Home Office spokesperson told The PIE that courts have “consistently found that the evidence the Home Office had at the time was sufficient to take action”.
A report last year accused the Home Office being “quick to act on imperfect evidence, but slow in responding to indications that innocent people may have been caught up in its actions” and accepting evidence presented by ETS “at face value” while not accepting evidence from those students accused of cheating.
At the time of publication, ETS had not responded to requests for comment.