Dr Asiya Islam is a Junior Research Fellow at NewnhamAndrew Hynes

“There were several points when I just got to feeling like I can’t do this, maybe I should just completely forget about it, just even yesterday I kind of had this thought of, ‘maybe I should just move back to India and just forget about the whole thing because it is really exhausting’”, Dr Asiya Islam remarks, her voice level, but strained.

On 5th November, Islam, a Junior Research Fellow at Newnham, received a letter saying that she had been refused Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK by the Home Office. She then had just nine days to submit an appeal of the decision that was threatening her ability to continue to live in the country where she has spent the last ten years of her life.

“The letter really [felt] like it’s a copy and paste job with some of my specific details entered in there”, Islam says — she could tell that her nationality had been inserted in, the word ‘India’ a slightly different font and size from the surrounding text. Islam’s application for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), which she had submitted five weeks earlier, was the most recent of several visas she has applied for since moving to the UK to pursue her masters’ degree at the London School of Economics.

She’s now a Junior Research Fellow in Sociology, having completed her PhD as a Cambridge Gates Scholar earlier this year. Each time, she said, the application has been more difficult than the last, more “impersonal, and dehumanising”.

“It just feels like the Home Office is just building more and more walls to block out people as best as it can,” she says, sitting in a warmly-lit office in Newnham on Wednesday evening.

“These decisions are decisions about peoples’ work, they’re decisions about peoples’ lives, so you can’t really just do them in the set standard, copy and paste way”.

Since she posted on Twitter on 6th November that her application had been rejected, Islam has received an outpouring of support, and is still catching up with messages from people who’ve had similar experiences with the UK’s hostile environment immigration practices. “I’ve gotten so many emails that just said, ‘in solidarity with you, let me know if I can help you’, so that’s been really encouraging,” she added.

An open letter addressed to the Home Office, so far signed by 1,725 UK academic staff, writes that Islam’s individual case signals that “UK universities will continue to lose the talented PhD researchers that they have invested years in training.”

The process of applying for ILR, and now, the legal appeal that she will undergo to reverse the decision before her student visa expires in January, has severely disrupted her life. The process of applying for the visa cost Islam over £3,400, and she wasn’t able to leave the UK while it was pending, to attend a pre-paid conference she had planned to speak at in November, nor will she now be able to leave to conduct fieldwork while she appeals. “I was planning to go see my parents in India in December which I won’t be doing now, so I’ll just be here,” she adds.

Islam’s position as a junior research fellow is highly prestigious for an early career academic, but it is still a fixed-term contract, and will end after three years. “Particularly for us who are international students or international researchers ... we have to constantly deal with the immigration processes, and it really takes away from your time and energy and finances”.

The lack of financial support for non-EU staff at UK universities has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. A new campaign launched in April 2018, International and Broke, has called on UK universities to pay immigration costs for academics and their families, to provide legal advice, and end discriminatory monitoring of migrant staff and students. According to a 2019 report by professional services firm EY, just 20% of Russell Group universities cover the full cost of Indefinite Leave to Remain for its non-EU staff, while 65% cover none of the costs.

“For someone who has recently finished their PhD who has recently gone on to their first job, that’s a huge amount of money, and I do genuinely think that universities in the UK need to be thinking much more about supporting their non-EU staff”, Islam says.

Though she emphasised that Cambridge’s head of immigration has supported her throughout the process with legal advice and that her college has been supportive of her case, the personal expense of covering immigration and legal fees has been steep. “I’m still in the process of figuring out how to cover them because it’s all expensive,” Islam says.

Rising immigration fees and the unpredictable bureaucracy of the UK’s hostile environment policies risks deterring international students and staff from contributing their scholarship to the UK academy, if the processes of moving to and staying in the country are untenable, especially for those without a financial safety net.

“It puts people in a position where they’re having to bear the costs of their own employment, and it’s almost a kind of way of saying, if you’re the kind of person who has £2,500, £3,500 spare to apply to your own visa we will hire you, otherwise we won’t hire you”, Islam remarks.

“Some people think bad immigration things only happen to ‘bad’ immigrants, but that’s really not true”

The potential long-term impact of the hostile environment policies on UK academia are wide-reaching: both in the ethnic, linguistic, and socio-economic diversity of university staff, but also in the risks associated with conducting fieldwork overseas while on a Tier 4 student visa. Though the Home Office’s recently updated policy on Tier 2 visas has acknowledged the principle that academics often have to do research outside of the UK, Islam’s eleven-month long fieldwork in New Delhi was the basis upon which the Home Office denied her ILR application.

Despite the fact that Islam sent letters from the University and the Department of Sociology that proved this fieldwork was a necessary part of her research, the Home Office said that she “failed to provide any exceptional reasons in support of [her] out of time application”, citing its policy that Tier 4 visa holders must not be absent from the country for over 540 days over a 10-year time period.

Her fieldwork, studying female labour force participation in India, was built into her PhD “right from the moment of its inception”, and had required first building trust with women whom she would later interview about their families, their work, and their lives. So to Islam, the Home Office’s decision was “basically like saying, there is no value in doing long term qualitative, good quality research, which I find very disappointing”.

A Gates Scholar and a early-career academic at a Cambridge college, Islam has institutional backing and access to legal advice and resources, and her case has already attracted media coverage in The Guardian, BBC, and The New York Times since she went public last week. But Islam hasn’t heard anything more from the Home Office since then.

The UK Home Office declined to comment on Islam’s case when contacted by Varsity.

“It feels like the Home Office is just building more walls to block out people as best as it can”

Last month, the Home Office reversed two decisions to refuse visa applications made by academics at the University of Oxford for their families, likely as a result of public pressure and multiple stories by The Guardian, as well as lobbying by Oxford. In contrast, a researcher who was told by the Home Office last month that she would be deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo was not offered any support, legal or otherwise, by her employer, Leicester University.

Academics have described the hurdles imposed by the Home Office as systemic, and the outcomes of many of the cases are dependent on unpredictable factors, such as the support that a researcher’s employer is willing to provide, and the media or political attention that arise from their particular stories going public.

Professor Sarah Franklin, head of Cambridge’s Sociology department, told The New York Times that the hostile environment extending to universities was “undermining core institutions”. The Academy of Social Sciences has also called on the UK government to make universities “trusted sponsors” of international staff, to eliminate minimum salary thresholds and implement a less heavy-handed approach.

But there was another aspect of how the Home Office has handled her case that’s particularly upsetting, Islam tells me: “[I have] the means to go get a lawyer and get all of this started in this very short time period, [but] most people are not in this position.” The Home Office’s bureaucracy is built to deter people from challenging their decision, she adds, citing the 14-day window from the date of the letter refusing her application before she loses her right to appeal: “How many people are able to make a decision of that kind?”


Mountain View

Students and staff caught in hostile environment immigration policy

“That’s something that’s been really weighing on me because all of this has happened, it’s so nice to see so much support but I think there’s partly the narrative that, if you’re highly skilled you deserve to stay here, and perhaps if you’re not highly skilled you don’t, and that’s a problematic narrative in itself so that’s something that I’ve been grappling with and thinking about”, Islam remarks. “In some peoples’ minds, that kind of thing just never happens — bad immigration things only happen to ‘bad’ immigrants but that’s really not true”.

“I think the Home Office has gotten quite short-sighted”, she adds, not only in how “dehumanising” the process is — Islam had no conversations with a case worker during her ILR application, and couldn’t think of a single number that she could call at the Home Office about her case — but also in the impact that the policies of its hostile environment will have on immigrants who have spent years or decades in the country.

“There’s a lot of personal, emotional, professional, financial issues that have come up with this just even in the last week that I think I haven’t even had the time to fully process. So it is exhausting, completely”.

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