Serious flaws in immigration controls have been uncovered by The Sunday Telegraph only days after a chief government adviser called for a review of Britain’s student visa system.
Our undercover reporters have exposed a host of scams offered to foreign nationals desperate to come to Britain as bogus students.
New Home Office immigration rules, which ministers promised would reduce the number of new arrivals, have actually led to a surge in applications and prompted immigration officials to voice their concerns.
Thousands of bogus students are being handed British visas after the Government’s much-heralded reform of the immigration system created a major loophole, an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.
Whistleblowers within the immigration service have revealed for the first time that rising numbers of student visa applications have created a big global backlog because new Home Office rules left officials powerless to refuse fraudulent applicants.
Undercover reporters in three foreign countries have also exposed a host of fraudulent methods used in attempts to exploit weaknesses in the Home Office’s new “points-based” immigration system.
:: Fake “relatives” in Britain offered at $1,000 (£610) each, to make visa applications look more impressive.
:: Under-the-counter loans organised for foreigners to “prove” they can pay course fees and support themselves, although the money is handed back to the lender once it has appeared on bank statements.
:: Immigrants being advised to apply to a legitimate university and then switch to a bogus college once on British soil.
Last week, Professor David Metcalf, the chairman of the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee, said he was “stunned” by the number of colleges allowed to bring students into the country on degree courses despite them being “not proper universities”, and called for the scope of student visa sponsorship to be reviewed. A separate review is already under way after Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, last month called for a rethink of the student visa system.
The situation has worsened to such an extent, and created such a rush of applications, that one foreign government has already raised “concerns” about the points-based system with Home Office ministers, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
Government officials in the Philippines alerted British consular staff to the large number of poorly-educated citizens who were heading for Britain on study visas.
Theresa Dizon-de Vega, Consul-General at the Philippine Embassy in London, said: “The Ambassador had a very productive discussion recently with minister Phil Woolas and officials of the UK Home Office.
“The Philippine Embassy and the UK Home Office agreed to co-ordinate closely and exchange information and views on various immigration-related concerns including the implementation of the new points-based system of migration.”
It is a major blow for the points-based system (PBS) which was meant to “raise the bar” and reduce the number of immigrants coming to Britain from outside Europe.
Devised by Liam Byrne, the former immigration minister who has since promoted to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the PBS came into force for overseas students in March.
It requires students to have 40 points to come to Britain. Applicants receive 30 points for holding a course offer from a college or university, and 10 points for proving they can pay the fees and support themselves while in the country.
Sources within the UK Border Agency claim the PBS removed the discretion of entry clearance officers in British embassies around the world, who are now forced to approve applications if candidates demonstrate they have 40 points, even if they suspect the applicant is a fraud.
An investigation by this newspaper has exposed widespread abuse by visa agencies in India, China and the Philippines which are advising customers on how to get around the British Government’s requirements, with some admitting that most “students” were simply coming here to work.
One agency in Fazilka, in Punjab, India, made an extraordinary pledge, telling our reporter: “We guarantee an applicant a student visa within a month.”
At another agency based in a cramped, stinking building in Fazilka, close to the Pakistan border, an adviser told our reporter that students in Britain always find a way to work more than the permitted 20 hours a week.
In the Philippines, one agency offered to bolster a visa application by arranging for Filipinos already living in Britain to pose as members of the applicant’s family for $1,000 and also promised that course records could “be arranged” for a fee, even if the student had failed their exams.
The applicant would then be able to secure a place in a British college – winning 30 points required under the PBS – on the basis of fraudulent paperwork.
Agencies in China advised applicants to register with a bona fide language school or university, and then switch to a bogus college once on Britain soil, to make it easier to extend their visa.
Li Wiuling, an agent in Beijing, said: “You can change after you arrive, because the formal ones are expensive.”
She offered a “guaranteed” visa for 40,000 yuan (£3,500) and promised that anyone who failed to attend their classes in Britain faced little prospect of being discovered.
“There are so many people doing the same thing, they are all fine. There won’t be one risk out of 100,” she said.
Sources in the immigration service estimate that there are 5,000 immigrants in the London area alone who arrived here as bogus students and are working in the black economy, possibly with little intention of ever returning home.
Awareness of the Home Office’s new rules in countries such as China, Pakistan and India has led to student visa applications quadrupling in some areas, generating a global backlog running into tens of thousands, The Sunday Telegraph discloses today. Applications in Sri Lanka and Nepal are also believed to be increasing.
As consular staff struggle to process the mountain of paperwork, the backlog has reached 10,000 applications in Beijing and 6,000 in Bombay, sources told this newspaper.
The Home Office had already acknowledged a backlog of 14,000 applications from Pakistan which Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, officially blamed on computer problems earlier this year.
One source said: “Before the points-based system, Bombay was getting 150 applications a day in the peak application season but now it is getting 600 a day, which is why the backlog has gone up and up.
“At the moment there is massive abuse. The points-based system is utter nonsense and an utter farce.
“Without a shadow of a doubt you are talking about thousands of visas being issued to people who are not legitimate students and simply want to come to Britain and work.”
Insiders estimate that the visa section at the British Consulate in India has received 15,000 to 20,000 extra applications this year while in China there have been an extra 10,000.
Both the Indian and Chinese missions introduced a moratorium on new student applications eight weeks ago which remains in force in both countries. In an indication of the scale of the problem there are no plans to lift either embargo, sources said.
Last month it emerged that the number of student visas issued at Mumbai and New Delhi in India, and Dhaka in Bangladesh, was 6,771 between June and August last year, but this year the figure was 19,950.
Damian Green, the shadow immigration minister, said: “Ministers should be very worried if the new system is easier to exploit than the old one. They must act to reassure the public, and genuine colleges, that this is not another immigration disaster in the making.
“The borders agency needs to call in all applications that have come through these routes as a matter of urgency.”
A source said: “Under the old system under the Immigration Act, immigration officers could reject an application they believed was not legitimate. They don’t have that ability any more.
“As long as an applicant gets the points there is no flexibility for the entry clearance officer to reject the visa. It’s a terrible loophole.
“The government’s spin was that the PBS would make it much quicker and easier to spot false applications, but it has actually made things much worse.”
A Home Office spokesman denied there was a moratorium on applications and insisted that the rise in student visa numbers was down to the global recession and not the PBS.
Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, said: “The points-based system ensures that colleges and schools must be licensed to bring in foreign students, inspected by accreditation bodies and the UK Border Agency to ensure they are genuine, and take responsibility for their students.
“Before we tightened controls around 4,000 UK institutions were bringing in international students, this has been reduced to around 2,000.
“We continuously monitor our systems and where improvements can be made we will make them.”
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