Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BBC Uncovers Student Visa Fraud: A Comment

It was a bit disconcerting watching the BBC Panorama programme yesterday (see here), showing, in great detail, the elaborate network of fraud behind student visas. Using undercover reporters, BBC was able to film an English Language examination, for TOEIC no less, where the answers are being read out to the candidates. A separate part of the examination, where the candidates' speaking and listening ability is tested, a native speaker was hired as a proxy and she appeared the test instead of the real candidate, who was asked to wait nearby during the test. And, this is not just about TOEIC: Perversely, the 'Visa Agents' were able to steal bank account details of people, presumably in collusion with employees of certain banks overseas as well as in Britain, to produce bank statements showing required balances to enable visa extension. 

The BBC was trying to prove that there is an extensive network of fraud gaming the UK visa system. This is not new, but the brazenness of the fraud and the apparent collusion of respectable organisations or their employees, large banks, testing organisations etc., may unsettle the viewers. When the Home Secretary was shown these footage, she claimed that this was exactly why the Government has implemented a punitive system constraining student visas. In fact, this may be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw.

Despite the much-needed focus it brings to an important issue, this documentary is telling in another regard: How easy it is for the fraud networks to dissolve in the air. In conclusion, the documentary reports that various players filmed committing the fraud have just moved on, claiming that it was individual employees committing the crime themselves. Some people may have been suspended etc., but surely new people will soon fill their boots. If anything, the only viable conclusion from this documentary is that the fraud is widespread and its perpetrators are operating with near immunity.

If one wondered why, the automaton like responses of the Home Secretary provide the clue: She kept claiming that the good work the government is doing curbing visa fraud by citing the fact that the student visa applications are down. Allowing for politician's natural fudge, it is still alarming because that was her only response: There is a possibility that she really believes what she says. Indeed, people familiar with the actual work of the Home Office were quite clearly saying that it is impossible for anyone to detect fraud of that nature - because at the point of delivery, the documents were all legit - and certainly the overworked agents are in no position to do sophisticated detective work needed to combat such fraud.

If anything, British Home Office has encouraged the fraud rather than suppressing it. The falling visa numbers reflect not the decreasing number of frauds, the open business on High Streets filmed by BBC prove otherwise, but the fact that the Home Office has successfully discouraged the genuine students from coming to Britain. But, on the other hand, it has effectively created significant incentives to commit fraud because there is money to be made here: Poor enforcement makes sure that everyone knows that it is easy to get away.

I remember two conversations from 2011, when the new government started talking tough on immigration. The first was with a Visa Attorney, who couldn't hide his glee that the visas were to become difficult to get: He explained to me how that would be good for business. The second was a presentation by the then Head of UK Border Agency's Student Visas, who spoke to a gathering of education institutions effectively rebuking them for their interest in recruiting international students. However, at the end of the presentation, he also admitted that the Home Office managed to deport less than 1% of those reported by the institutions for abusing their visas. 

These two conversations sum up the situation we have now. One, a penal visa system, which treats every student coming to Britain as a criminal effectively drives away anyone who was looking to study, sending them to other welcoming destinations such as Australia, Singapore, Canada and now United States. Two, the understaffed Home Office is unable to do due diligence even for the reduced number of applications, making it easy for fraudsters to slip in applications. Three, this makes great business for immigration attorneys of various hues, and create the possibility of a financial reward through arbitrage inherent in the system. Finally, as a classic failure of common sense, this system is predicated on limitations on supply, closure of fraudulent colleges etc., which increase the profitability of the trade for the savvy, but no penalties on demand, as the student faces very little threat of actually getting deported. 

The opposite of this is not an open doors policy, but a smart system which provides incentives for compliance and puts emphasis on execution rather than policy tinkering. However, this has been the folly of Right-wing Governance everywhere: While they preach small government, Right-wingers have this illusion that the Government can impact everything, including people's sexual behaviour. This tends to lead to the catastrophic combination of more policy and feeble execution due to anorexic government machinery. The UK Visa system's comical travails should be seen in this broader perspective.



UPDATE:

This continues to be a serious debate. The government suspended one university, Glyndwr University, and took further action on Bedfordshire University and University of West London (formerly Thames Valley University), as well as many private colleges. [See the story here]  However, being reliant on top down and a scatter gun approach, it is still not getting a grip on the situation.





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