Jnanesh, from Maharashtra, arrived in Britain nine years and eight months ago on a full Erasmus scholarship for an MSc in networking and e-commerce. Since then he’s worked for a string of mostly retail companies across Britain, and as an independent e-commerce consultant, earning and paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in taxes.
But in 2016, when he sought to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the country (he had been on the Tier 1 Highly Skilled visa Route, which has since been closed), he was dismayed to have his application rejected, as the Home Office pointed to a small discrepancy in his 2010-11 tax filings — the first year when he had started his freelance work, and before he started to use the services of a full-fledged accounting firm.
He quickly made the necessary tax rectifications — which were accepted by HMRC, but the Home Office has stuck to its guns. Last month, his second application for ILR was rejected, and he received a letter demanding that he leave the country within 14 days.
Jnanesh, who has launched an admin appeal — one of the very few avenues open to him to challenge the decision — struggles to comprehend the decision and in particular the use by the Home Office of Section 322 (5) — until recently a little known part of the immigration rules — which are designed to keep terrorists and criminals from settling in Britain.
“It was a genuine mistake…this was the first ever year when I was dealing with tax assessments…and it never happened again in seven years. There is not a single penny of mistake. The Home Office’s own guidelines suggest there needs to be a pattern of deception and I certainly don’t fit into that.”
Jnanesh’s situation could have been seen as an anomaly — an administrative error — save for the fact that with increasing regularity men and women — like Jnanesh — who had been on Britain’s Tier 1 highly skilled workers visa and seeking to settle in Britain after the requisite amount of time, have received refusals on the very same grounds.
While Jnanesh — until now at least — has been able to continue working, should his admin appeal fail, and he attempt the very last possible course of action: judicial appeal, he would be left unable to work, access public services, including healthcare, have a bank account or rent a property. Anxiety pervades his life. Many others have fared even worse — already losing jobs, businesses, family lives destroyed, children impacted.
The situation of Jnanesh and others would unlikely to have seen the media spotlight had they not been able to come together in a campaign group ‘Highly Skilled Migrants UK’ that was formed earlier this year, and has had regular protests outside Parliament, while also pursuing legal avenues.
Attention over the past two months has increasingly focussed on the work of Britain’s Home Office — following what has come to be known as the Windrush scandal (the government wrongly treating Commonwealth migrants who arrived in Britain before 1973 as illegal immigrants).
The treatment of the highly skilled migrants has provoked much concern in Parliament: earlier this month MPs sought clarity from the government — including new Home Minister Sajid Javid — on the use of Article 322 (5) and whether it was used to meet internal Home Office targets. Naz Shah, a Labour MP compared their treatment to the Windrush generation.
“There are cases of people who can no longer get treatment for free on the NHS because they are being told they are going to be detained and people who are sleeping in their clothes because they fear being taken to a removal centre, specifically because of the way that your Department is treating what are either negligible or minor mistakes in their tax submissions,” said John Woodcock, an MP on the Home Affairs committee that questioned Javid and other ministers over the past month.
The government has insisted there are no targets on this but campaigners remain sceptical pointing to excerpts of Subject Access Requests (SAR) — internal case working notes — that members of the group had requested access to following unsuccessful ILR applications, and appeared to show decisions were based on policy priorities rather than merits of a particular case.
“You don’t apply tools for genuinely illegal migrants and those threatening national security to professionals — people who’ve made a genuine mistake,” says Lord Bilimoria, a cross bench member of the House of Lords and long-standing critic of the government’s approach to immigration.
“This is another indication — the Windrush scandal being the worst manifestation — of the hostile approach to immigration that has been in place since [Prime Minister] Theresa May took charge of the Home Office.”
Theresa May headed the Home Office between 2010 and 2016, before becoming Prime Minister after the Brexit referendum.
In 2012, in a not notorious interview with the Daily Telegraph she spoke of her desire to create a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigration: a phrase that continues to haunt her.
He and others point to the fact that the wider context cannot be ignored: the controversy comes amid wider concerns that Britain’s approach to immigration is not just penalising individuals but Britain’s public services and economy too.
Figures obtained under a freedom of information request by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that over 6,000 (general) visas, including from India, had been refused in the four months to March, because of an annual visa cap enforced by the British government — with sectors from IT to medicine and engineering impacted.
“These policies are not just unjust they are economically illiterate,” says Lord Bilimoria, pointing to the fact as Britain prepares to end free movement, the economy would be faced with a double whammy of fewer EU and non-EU migrants to fill key skills gaps and labour shortages in the economy.
The policies are a far cry from the government’s official stance which is that it welcomes the “brightest and the best” from overseas, and that it hopes to forge strong economic ties with non-EU nations (India, of course, included).
Jnanesh, too, has little doubt as to the bigger picture. “It really feels like they are just trying to find something against you.
They want to convert a legal, tax-paying migrant into an illegal migrant,” he says. “They are converting people like me into illegal migrants and then using whatever weapons they have at their disposal against illegal migrants.”