Asiya Gul Iram and her daughters have lived in Britain for more than a decade, but they rarely leave their home. The three of them sleep in the same bedroom despite having one each. They are all bright, educated women with ambitions, but since 2015 they have lived in fear of being sent to a life of oppression – because of an accusation Asiya vehemently denies.
“My life stopped when I got that letter,” says the 48-year-old, describing the moment she was accused by the Home Office of cheating in an English language test she had completed three years before. “I didn’t cheat. I did nothing wrong. How can they accuse me for something I haven’t done?”
The Pakistani national moved to the UK on a student visa with her husband and daughters, Saba and Shifa Ikram, aged 26 and 30, in 2007. Her relationship with her husband was volatile – she had already attempted to escape from him twice while in Pakistan because he and his relatives wanted their daughters to marry much older men in the family. But when he agreed they could move to Britain, Asiya hoped it was a chance to start anew.
She began her studies in business administration, commuting from their home in West Drayton to central London. Saba, then 14, started studying for her GCSEs at Rosedale College in Hayes and Shifa, then 18, started working as a shop assistant, while their father got a job working at Morrisons. The family lived a moderately happy life. According to Asiya, her husband would occasionally, spurred by pressure from his relatives in Pakistan, speak of them going back and marrying their daughters into the family. She didn’t like the idea, but she knew that as long as they were settled with studies and work in the UK, it wasn’t something she had to worry about too much.
Everything changed in January 2015, when Asiya – who was at that point on the brink of completing her Bachelors degree in accountancy – became one of thousands of international students accused of cheating in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), which she had taken in 2012. Given no proper right to challenge the decision, they were subsequently told they had no right to stay in the UK.
The Home Office was last month accused by the National Audit Office (NAO) of failing to ensure innocent people were not wrongly targeted in the operation, which saw more than 2,400 students removed from the country. The department has come under increasing pressure to allow those accused to retake the test to prove their innocence.
With no proper opportunity to challenge the decision and no in-country right of appeal, Asiya felt hopeless. Meanwhile, Asiya said she believed her husband saw this as an opportunity to fulfil his relatives’ wishes and go back to Pakistan.
“He said ‘OK, your visa is finished, you cheated, so now let’s go back’,” she remembers. “He said we are going back to Pakistan and now the daughters are old enough to get married. I said we couldn’t go back, their lives would be ruined. He started beating me, beating my daughters. We called the police and he left the house. After that we had no hope.”
Her husband left, and she later discovered he had returned to Pakistan, where he apparently made allegations of adultery against her. Asiya and her daughters decided they had no option but to apply for asylum. But with limited finances, they were unable to afford a lawyer and represented themselves. Their asylum claim was refused in March 2017, with the judge accepting the Home Office claim that Asiya was a “resourceful, well-qualified and well-educated” woman who would be able to “fend for herself” in Pakistan. They subsequently submitted a human rights application, which was refused on the same grounds in July 2018.
A month later, Saba and Shifa were detained while reporting to the Home Office. They were taken into a room without their mother, and Asiya waited in the waiting room from 10am until 4pm not knowing what had happened to them. Meanwhile, her daughters were being interrogated, handcuffed and transported to a removal centre.
Crying at the memory, Saba, 26, says: “They put handcuffs on me and my sister. I just wanted to scream. It’s not nice when you see this happening to someone you love. They said ‘take off your shoes, I want to see what you are hiding’. They were treating us like criminals.”
The sisters were served a letter stating they were liable for removal. Saba and Shifa were taken to Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, where they were informed they would be removed to Pakistan in a matter of days. “They said our flight had been booked for Tuesday. I just wanted to hit my head against the wall,” says Saba. “I just wanted answers. They hadn’t told us. At night-time I started having suicidal thoughts and they wouldn’t give me my medication. It was hell.”
They were released after seven days. But, with no resolution to their case, the three women are now living in fear that they will be detained again – and that this time they could be sent back to Pakistan.
“Since they detained my daughters, we are really afraid of the Home Office,” says Asiya. “Every month when we go to report, we feel terrified. When we enter the Home Office building, we start shivering. We always think this could be our last time. I cannot sleep properly. When something fell in the corridor the other night we were all so scared. We were crying. We thought maybe the Home Office had come to our door. Even when the postman posts a letter the noise scares us.”
Their MP, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, recently wrote to immigration minister Caroline Nokes for the second time to request that Asiya be given the opportunity to take a fresh English test in order to give her the chance to clear her name. But he is yet to receive a response. The Labour MP said: “Following the TOEIC scandal, they have been left for years with no resolution to their case with devastating consequences.”
The family also has the support of Migrant Voice, a charity that has been campaigning since 2017 alongside many of the students affected. Nazek Ramadan, director of the charity, said: “There are countless other parents like Asiya, and young people like Saba and Shifa who have been denied a dignified life and a hopeful future by the government’s accusation – one made on the basis of worthless evidence and one they were denied the right to challenge. For this family, that false accusation is threatening their fundamental right to a safe existence.”
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, has said he is sympathetic to this issue and has promised twice in the last two months to make a statement on the government’s next steps – but campaigners and those affected are still waiting.
When asked about Asiya and her daughters’ cases, a Home Office spokesperson said: “All applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. As legal proceedings are ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Unable to study, work or claim benefits, Asiya and her daughters are currently relying on the charity of local friends who help them with their rent, bills and groceries. She trembles as she reflects, with teary eyes, on how things changed after she was accused.
“I was studying properly, I was going to the college regularly. I passed my first-year exam. I did the test myself,” she says with determination. “And on top of that, the label of cheater is really hurtful. I was thinking by 2015 I would be finished my bachelor’s degree and I would go for a masters. I was hoping to go into banking. But all of my dreams got shattered by this false accusation.
“It’s completely taken away my independence. I wanted to be a strong woman, to support my daughters and protect them from my family, to keep them here safe. And I was trusting the UK government that they would believe us, that they would give me a fair chance to prove myself. But they haven’t. And I’m losing my hope.”