In a story by Natasha Gilbert in The Guardian last week, it was reported that international meetings of academics are being targeted as a way to slip past immigration controls.
The story continues.
As the government acts to tighten visa rules for overseas students and visiting academics in order to curb immigration abuse of the UK‘s higher education system, new immigration weak spots in the university sector are coming to light.
Universities holding academic conferences are being targeted by bogus overseas applicants, who are just looking to obtain a visa into the country, Education Guardian can reveal.
The bogus applicants attempt to register to attend conferences at UK universities in the hope of getting a letter from the university stating they are expected at the event. The letter would bolster the bogus applicant’s request for a visa into the UK. Universities often send letters to genuine overseas academics confirming registration to a conference to help their request for a visitor’s visa.
The problem is widespread. Stephen Taylor, a lecturer in strategic business management at Strathclyde University, organised an international conference in May.
“It is well known in academic circles that if you are holding a conference you are going to be targeted by people who will use it as a way of getting you to issue a letter saying they are participating in a conference,” he says.
“They can then use the letter to help them get a visa. It’s endemic.”
Taylor says some hoax applications are easy to spot. For the conference he organised in May, he received six suspicious-looking applications out of a total of 100. But he says some dubious applicants may be genuine and it is not for universities to judge or vet applicants.
“In one case, we were contacted by someone from an African country saying they were the principal of a resource-based company that wanted to send three employees to the event,” he says.
“Straight away we knew this did not tie in with what we were doing, because it’s an academic conference. But they kept hassling us for three months to send them a letter. My colleague received one call a week from them. I suspect it was a fairly large-scale operation.”
Taylor says he would issue a letter only when applicants have paid the registration fee for the conference.
Immigration controls for overseas students have been tightened up following the exposure of bogus colleges offering people a means of getting a UK student visa.
Under the rules, all colleges and education establishments are required to sponsor overseas students and report those who do not attendance the course on which they are enrolled.
But universities are not responsible for persons from overseas attending conferences, and are not required to report non-attendance.
Little advice from the Home Office
Another university administrator who is currently organising a conference is angry at the lack of advice or support offered by the Home Office when she approached it regarding suspicious applications she had received. She says universities would benefit from some guidance on how to tackle suspect applications.
“We felt we did not have any support from the immigration service whatsoever. I was passed around to about 20 people while trying to get some sort of official guidance. I did not receive any. In the end, we just decided only to send out letters to bona fide conference speakers,” she says.
“I think there should be some guidance on the wording of letters and advice on when not to send out letters.”
A spokesman from the Home Office said:
“An academic coming to the UK for a short conference would be classed as a business visitor. The onus is on applicants to ensure they meet the visa requirements.”
The letter from universities is just one document among many that is required, the spokesman added.
Immigration Matters Comment
This problems created by people entering the UK on visit visas to supposedly attend conferences is not confined to the academic world. Many other events are targeted by people attempting to gain entry to the UK.
Every week people turn up at my office on tourist visas in the hope of switching to another, more permanent, category, such as a working or student visa.
Most have come through ‘visa fixers’ in their own country who promised them that if they enter the UK as a visitor they could then switch visas. They cannot.
In order to ensure they get the visa, applications are dressed up as business trips to attend meetings, conferences, arts festivals and religious events.
Many have been charged up to £5000 for this ‘advice’ and for drafting fraudulent applications to obtain the coveted visa stamp in their passports.
Last week I was in the Philippines speaking to students on the merits of studying in the UK. I warned the audience not to use unregulated visa agents and fixers who encourage people to make false representations to the British Embassy in order to obtain a visitors visa. After my talk a young man in his early 20’s approached me for a private word.
He told me that his papers were with a travel agent who promised to get him a tourist visa to go to the UK, and assured him that he would be able to switch to another visa category once he had arrived.
The agent was charging him 200,000 Pesos (around £2000), a fortune in Manila where a Nurse earns less than £100 per month, for bogus advice and a severely restricted visa. I advised him to withdraw the application.
The agent was obviously going to make up a story, as the young man had already quit his job, and no Embassy would issue a tourist visa to a young, single, unemployed male.
Not only would he not be able to switch from a tourist visa, but in submitting a bogus application containing a pack of lies about his occupation and intentions, he would have ruined his chances of ever entering the UK legitimately under his real occupation.
Once you lie on an immigration form you will almost certainly be banned from reapplying to the UK. Worse still your tarnished reputation could cause you difficulties with other Embassies.
Had this young man found an employer in the UK willing to sponsor him as a nurse, he would have had to return to Manila to apply for a Working Visa, which is where he would have become entangled in his own web of deception.
When making a visa application to come to the UK as a nurse, the previous set of details, when he applied as a businessman attending a conference, would have come back to haunt him.
Previous applications are kept on record and will clearly conflict with the genuine set of details needed to work in the UK as a nurse.
In the majority of cases the VAF1 Visa application forms are signed blank and never seen again. Candidates are not even furnished with a copy. The agent then sets about putting together letters of invitation, business names and even accounts for the applicant before submitting the package for visa approval.
By the time the unsuspecting candidate arrives in the UK and discovers they have been duped, they have spent so much money, usually borrowed, in getting here that they have little option but to stay on and go underground to find work.
At best they live a life of fear and desperation, trapped in their own snare. In the worst cases, migrants are forced into crime or prostitution to survive.
This type of people trafficking further exasperates the illegal immigration problem and sets public opinion against legitimate migration.
With an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants already in the UK, the Government announced plans last week to impose tough new sanctions on those who fail to ensure family members visiting from abroad return home.
Family members will will need to become ‘licensed’ sponsors of visitors, under proposed changes to the visa system. Sponsors will have to ensure that their visitors leave before their visa runs out, or face a ban on bringing anyone into the country, penalties of up to £5,000 or a jail sentence.