Britain’s Home Office is under investigation by the country’s spending watchdog over its treatment of thousands of students — mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — whose visas were cancelled over allegations of cheating in English language tests that they had taken to come to the UK.

The investigation follows years of warnings from campaigners that tens of thousands of students had been unjustly treated, after being mistakenly deemed to have cheated in their tests in a crackdown by the government that followed revelations of fraud at two testing centres.

While many have been deported, others have returned home voluntarily, unable or unwilling to contest the charges against them, while other have had their lives disrupted – and access to basic public services blocked — as they remained in the UK, attempting to appeal the decision taken against them. Around 34,000 students and entrepreneurs have been accused of cheating, and a further 22,000 had their results questioned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said in a statement that it was “looking at the information held by the Home Office on the number of people alleged to have cheated and the action the Home Office has taken to date.”

“This is an important step on the road to justice for thousands of innocent students,” said Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, which has been working to support impacted students and has been working with the NAO over the past few months, including holding focus groups with impacted students.

“The Home Office’s handling of the issue has been spectacularly unfair and opaque, and it’s high time the truth was brought to light.” “This is one of the biggest forgotten immigration scandals of [Theresa] May’s hostile environment policies,” said Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, referring to the phrase used by the Prime Minister while she was still Home Secretary, to describe the government’s approach to immigration and its attempt to drive net migration from the “hundreds of thousands” to the “tens of thousands.”

Hostile Environment

During a Parliamentary debate last year, MPs called for an independent investigation, as well as an apology and potential compensation from the government, with many drawing a parallel between the situation and the controversy over the treatment of Commonwealth citizens, mostly from the Caribbean, that has come to be known as the Windrush scandal, which is also seen as resulting from the Hostile Environment approach of the Home Office.

For years, the Home Office been taking foreign students, workers and others to court on a charge of committing fraud to obtain the English-language qualification to stay in the UK. Since 2010, a number of institutions, including the Educational Testing Services (ETS), an American company with many TOEIC centres, have been responsible for running exams — covering different levels of English language proficiency required by different types of visas — that were recognised by the UK government.

Alleged fraud

In February 2014, a BBC Panorama investigation found evidence of fraud at an ETS centre, and this acted as a trigger for the British government’s deportation programme. Since then, thousands of people, who had gained their qualifications via ETS centres across the UK, were accused of fraud.

The system used to determine whether fraud was committed has faced much criticism and challenges in courts. Campaigners say that blanket decisions based on questionable voice recognition software was used as the basis for the charge that proxies were used to take the test.

“Many were wrongly accused and have spent the last five years trying to clear their names in the courts. Most remain trapped in a legal labyrinth, facing Home Office appeals and delays at every step and living with the daily threat of detention and deportation,” said Ramadan.

“Stripped of the right to work, study or even access healthcare many of the students are destitute, and suffering from severe mental health problems. The criminal allegation against them means they cannot continue their studies, get a good job or obtain a visa to travel anywhere in the world,”he added.

The Home Office said it has been supporting the investigation and would consider its findings once they were published.