When the UK government began to restrict which institutions could offer accredited accounting courses as part of an immigration crackdown in 2011, Iqbar Bahar, a Bangladeshi national, found himself urgently looking for a new college.
In order to gain admission to his chosen institution, Bahar, now 44, took the Test of English for International Communication, a standardised English test facilitated by US company Educational Testing Service.
Years later, on October 30 2014, Bahar received a life-changing letter from the Home Office. The government department accused him of cheating on the test and revoked his visa.
“My student life was going smoothly and I felt very fine at that time. But when I got this letter, it destroyed my life,” Bahar said.
After cheating was uncovered at ETS test centres in 2014, the company gave evidence that this could have affected 97% of the 58,000 TOEICs taken between 2011 and 2014.
Subsequently, the Home Office began to deport test-takers like Bahar.
Now, two of the individuals forced to leave the UK tell The PIE News how the scandal destroyed their lives.
Bahar, like thousands of others, insists that he did not cheat. He had already taken an IELTS test in Bangladesh and received a score of 5.5 – above the threshold for the UK’s visa system.
After receiving the letter, Bahar spent eight months in the UK attempting to overturn the accusation, during which time he was unable to work or study. He was required to visit a Home Office reporting centre every fortnight.
“The situation was so hostile that I can’t take it anymore”
In the end, he said, after suffering from depression and insomnia, “I voluntarily left the UK because the situation was so hostile that I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“When I came back to Bangladesh, I started to find a job here but it was still difficult… I haven’t completed my course so it’s so difficult.”
Bahar continued to fight the accusation from Bangladesh and, in 2019, was cleared of deception charges.
But instead of restoring his previous visa, the Home Office informed him that he must make a new application – a decision he is continuing to contest.
Since 2014, Bahar has spent over £25,000 in legal fees and says he has lost years of his life grappling with this miscarriage of justice.
During the TOEICS fallout, 2,500 students were forcibly removed and a further 7,200 left after being told that they would otherwise be deported.
But the Home Office has been widely criticised for how it handled the scandal – a 2019 parliamentary inquiry concluded that the evidence used against students was “confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe”.
Last week, BBC Newsnight found the Home Office used seriously flawed evidence to deport thousands of students accused of cheating a test.
— Migrant Voice ? (@MigrantVoiceUK) February 19, 2022
While some court hearings have upheld that there is evidence of cheating, over 3,700 people have won legal appeals against the accusations.
However fighting for justice can be a long and expensive process that is unfeasible for many.
Mehedi Hasan, now 31, came to the UK from Bangladesh in 2010 to study for a diploma.
When he decided to apply for a top-up course (equivalent to the final year of an undergraduate degree) at the University of Sunderland, he was required to take the TOEIC.
A few years later, Hasan heard about the crackdown on suspected cheaters but wasn’t worried.
“I thought, it won’t affect me”
“I had done my IELTS, I had done my undergraduate. I had almost four years of experience at Sports Direct,” said Hasan, who worked at the sports shop during his studies. “I thought, it won’t affect me.”
But in November 2014, officers turned up at Hasan’s house without prior warning. He was taken to a detention centre and told he would be deported on the grounds of deception.
“You are being treated like a criminal when you didn’t do anything,” Hasan said.
Although he maintains his innocence, Hasan never fought the charges due to the cost and the complexity of doing so from another country.
He explained the turmoil he felt when he returned to Bangladesh.
“I was frustrated, I couldn’t make my decision. What should I do?” Hasan said. “Should I go for other countries? There were lots of things going on in my mind, like if I try to apply for my masters to other countries, shall I get refused if they know that I have a deception history in the UK?”
“The impact of the government’s actions is still being felt”
Nazek Ramadan, director at Migrant Voice, a charity that has campaigned on behalf of TOEIC victims, said that “the impact of the government’s actions is still being felt years after the scandal first hit”.
“Students who have now been proved innocent are having to rebuild their lives after more than seven years of being in limbo.
“The mental health impact on them has been massive, many of them are still suffering serious consequences due to the actions of the government, such as long-term mental health conditions, huge amounts of debt, and losing the best years of their lives.”
Migrant Voice has called on UK home secretary Priti Patel to outline how the situation will be resolved – a commitment she made to a parliamentary select committee in February 2021.
A Home Office spokesperson said, “The courts have consistently found in our favour on this matter, but where somebody’s test has been identified as using proxy test taker and their application refused they can still appeal this decision.
“We have made significant improvements to ensure large-scale abuse like this can never happen again – fixing the broken student visa system, overhauling English language testing requirements and revising our caseworker guidance.”
Today, despite having completed an MBA in Bangladesh and securing a job in finance, the consequences of the deportation still hang over Hasan.
His wife would like to do an MA in the UK, but he believes he won’t be allowed to accompany her. He also wishes to visit relatives living in the US but is reluctant to apply for a visa, knowing it would likely be rejected once he disclosed his previous deportation.
“Everytime I think about it, I feel horrible, I feel sad. It’s like I can’t move anywhere from this country.”
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