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‘I felt like a criminal’: the disastrous aftermath of the Home Office’s deceitful allegations

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Sajjad Sohag and his spouse were awakened the morning following their honeymoon by the sound of immigration officials smashing through the front door of the London building where they were renting a studio apartment.

When police broke down the door of his first-floor apartment with a battering ram at roughly 6.30 a.m., he was still half sleeping. When they were certain it was him, they checked a sheet of paper with his picture on it and noted “target identified.” He was informed by an officer that he was being detained because he had cheated on an English test.

“I had no idea what they were talking about,” he states, recalling the sequence of events that led to the transformative events of October 9, 2014.

He got 5 minutes to dress. “They made me keep the door open while I went to the toilet. It was so humiliating,” he states. He didn’t know what was going on, so he couldn’t explain it to his wife. Gripping his shoulder, one of the cops led him downstairs and into an immigration enforcement van. The raid had awakened many of his neighbors, who were looking at him from inside the car. “All I felt was embarrassment and shame. I felt like a criminal.”

He was kept in immigration detention for 70 days, the whole time not understanding why he was there.

Sohag, 40, is among approximately thirty-five thousand international students that the Home Office has accused of falsifying answers to an English language exam that was authorized by the government and needed to be taken in order to apply for the renewal of their student visas. A series of dawn searches on student apartments around the nation were sparked by the accusations.

Approximately 2,500 students were removed from the UK by force, and 7,500 more students left of their own will after being informed that staying would result in arrest, detention, and/or forceful deportation. Years have been spent by thousands of persons accused in their attempts to clear their names.

Sohag was the only one of seven children from a moderately well-off family in Bangladesh to attend university in the United Kingdom. Upon obtaining a degree in computer science and engineering, his mother and elder siblings consented to cover the cost of his doctoral studies in business management in London. “Britain’s universities are seen as very prestigious. People believe you can secure a better future by being educated here,” he states.

The intricate history of the English language exam scandal could help to explain why, in contrast to other similar injustices, this problem hasn’t received consistent political attention. Furthermore, according to Sohag, there isn’t much public support for international students. “The Post Office scandal and the Windrush issue both directly hit British people, but this issue is about immigrants, and who cares about immigrants?”

He had to take an English language exam before being allowed to enroll in the course, which he passed easily because English was the primary language of instruction for his undergraduate degree. He had to retake his English exam in 2012 in order to officially renew his visa. He completed the Educational Testing Service (ETS) test of English for International Communication, which is located in the United States. He doesn’t recall anything strange occurring in the test centre.

Two years later, two test centers’ worth of undercover BBC footage revealed test administrators encouraging candidates to cheat. Sohag did not take his test at any of the ETS testing locations that were highlighted in the documentary. However, the Home Office concluded, based on information from ETS, that 39% of those who took an ETS test between 2011 and 2014 were suspicious and that 58% of those who had taken the test between 2011 and 2014 had cheated. Speaking fluent English, Sohag claimed he didn’t need to deceive, but his name was on a list of students who had lied to get a visa.

He thinks the accusations were quickly used by the Home Office to support its efforts to reduce net migration figures. “When Theresa May took charge of the Home Office she clearly declared that her first target was to reduce the number of immigrants. We were an easy target,” he says.

The allegation had disastrous consequences. It was only because his Pakistani wife, a student, found the money to hire a lawyer to help refute the allegations that he was freed. Upon his discharge, he was informed that he was not permitted to work. During that six-year period, he had to borrow more than £50,000 from his siblings to cover legal expenses, aid with rent, and purchase food. As the company’s IT manager, he is still working to save money from his salary in order to repay the loan.

Because he believed going back to Bangladesh would be an admission of guilt, Sohag made the decision to not go. “In Bangladesh the reality is that you can buy the system if you have money, if you have power, but my siblings had the belief that the British justice system is fair. They said: ‘If what you’re saying is true, eventually it will right, so stay and fight.’”

At first, the students who were accused of cheating were informed that they had no right of appeal in the UK and were not given any proof to back up their charge. In the wake of thousands of immigration appeal hearings, the Home Office has since produced evidence of fraud; however, the validity of this evidence has been called into question, and at least 3,600 students have successfully appealed.

In 2019, it took a mere twenty minutes for an immigration appeal court to rule that Sohag was not guilty of the alleged cheating. He was conflicted with the quick decision.

“I felt joy that the struggle was over, but this mistake took six whole years from my life and my career. It wasn’t just my life it ruined, but my wife’s life and my children’s,” stated Sohag.

He is one of 23 former students who are presently being represented by Bindmans Law Firm in a group action that seeks compensation although he claims that money can never undo the harm that has been done to his life. Due to his visa issues, he only got to see his mother once every thirteen years, and she passed away last year. There have been moments when the experience’s tension has made him feel suicidal.

In reaction to the accusations, ETS claims to have shut down its UK operation and stopped offering English language tests in the country. It claims that its populace and customs have evolved.

The Home Office stated: “The evidence provided by ETS, the action the Home Office took and the counter-arguments have all been considered in the series of litigation since 2014. Courts have consistently found the evidence was sufficient to take the action we did. Given scale of fraud it is impossible to say that nobody was wrongly affected and we acknowledge a number of appeals have succeeded. However, we continue to believe there was a large-scale problem with cheating.”

Mzaad
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Daily Dazzling Dawn is the first and only international and non-profitable newspaper, which is 100% ownership of professional journalists from Bangladeshi origin with 20 years of experience in global journalism. The main aim of the newspaper is promoting ethical journalism with truth, accuracy and proficiency.

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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury

Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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