Test scandal victim “drained” by nine-year fight

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A man who has spent nine years fighting to stay in the UK after being caught up in an English language testing scandal says he feels “let down” by the justice system.

Sabtain Umer, 36, came to the UK from Pakistan in 2011 to study a foundation accounting course. He had already taken and passed the IELTS English exam before he arrived.

In 2013, after completing the course, Umer applied to do a graduate diploma in Management Studies. In order to be accepted, he was required to take the TOEICs exam to prove his English language proficiency. He passed and commenced his three-year course.

One year in, Umer received a letter from the Home Office.

“It has come to the attention of the Home Office, from information provided by Educational Testing Service (ETS) that an anomaly with your speaking test indicated the presence of a proxy taker,” the letter read.

As a result, the letter explained, Umer’s UK visa had been revoked. “You should make arrangements to leave without delay,” the letter ordered.

“I didn’t sleep for three nights,” Umer said. “I was devastated. I didn’t even know myself what happened.”

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Umer was one of thousands of international students in the UK who received a letter like this after a 2014 BBC documentary revealed cheating in TOEICs test centres operated by ETS.

After the documentary was released, the government asked ETS, the organisation who ran the exam, to assess how widespread the cheating was. The company responded that 97% of the 58,459 tests taken between 2011 and 2014 were “suspicious”. Based on this, the Home Office
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In the wake of the scandal, around 2,500 students were forcibly removed from the UK and another 7,200 left the country after receiving warnings like the one Umer was sent.

Umer, however, adamant that he had not cheated, decided to stay and fight his case. He began to regularly report to an immigration centre and, in 2015, applied for an in-country right of appeal on human rights grounds.

But when his visa was revoked, so was his access to public services. He could no longer see a GP, open a bank account, hold a driving licence, or study or work in the UK.

From 2014 onwards, Umer relied on his family, some of whom were also based in Britain, to support him. He moved in with family and other relatives bought him clothes and paid his phone bill.

In October 2016, Umer’s appeal was refused and, shortly after, he was detained in an immigration detention centre.

“The first two weeks was very heavy,” he said, explaining that he felt like there was no justice. His application for bail had been rejected.

He met others in the centre with “very, very sad stories”.

“People who didn’t do anything,” he said. “Some [were] doctors, some have done PhDs and everyone has a different story. I was thinking, my story is nothing in front of them.”

After two months in detention, a court found Umer had been unlawfully detained and he was released, but was still no closer to having his visa reinstated.

It wasn’t until 2017, three years after he received the initial letter from the Home Office, that the government said it would withdraw all the charges and Umer was cleared of all criminal offences.

It was at this time that the UK government’s response to the cheating scandal began to be scrutinised more closely. MPs would later find that the evidence used by the Home Office against the students was
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.

Umer was told he would be given a two-month visa and a biometric residence permit, which could be used to confirm his right to study in the UK. He was desperate to resume his studies and put the ordeal behind him. But his excitement at the news quickly turned to despair.

During the next two months, the BRP never arrived.

Despite notifying the Home Office of his new address, the visa was delivered to his former college, which had since moved location.

By the time he received the BRP, it was about to expire. No bank would let him open an account with only a few days left on his visa and he couldn’t enrol into any university without a bank statement.

“I was devastated,” he said. But, instead of giving up, he relaunched a legal battle. He had years left on his original student visa, the one the Home Office revoked, and felt he was entitled to be given this time back.

At the end of 2019, he lost the legal case and was given another two-month biometric residence permit. During this time, he said he applied to over 10 universities but was rejected as the institutions didn’t want to sponsor someone who had previously “dropped out” of another course and risk jeopardising their visa licences.

After failing to find a university that would take him, he restarted the legal battle – one that is still ongoing today.

His application for 30 months discretionary leave was rejected, as was his subsequent appeal. He then applied for indefinite leave to remain in the UK and was again rejected in March 2023. Umer is now appealing the decision.

This legal process has taken almost a decade and cost Umer over £35,000 in legal fees.

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Umer was cleared of all charges, yet the impact of the TOEICs scandal on his life has been monumental. He said it has left him depressed and hopeless.

“I couldn’t see my family for 10 years,” he said. While he was fighting to clear his name, his parents in Pakistan had fallen ill. But, if he’d left to see them, he would not have been allowed to return to the UK.

“I feel the process has mentally drained me,” he said. “There [are] times where I cannot think straight and get worried and depressed of the thought of the years of my life wasted in the whole situation.”

“I hope I will get justice,” Umer said. “I strongly believe God has always stood by me and he will listen to my prayers and give me justice that I deserve. Then I will be able to see my mum and dad.”

Umer still holds out hope for the future. “When I’m granted, I will definitely complete my degree,” he said. “I want to take part in this country.”

The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.

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