Chinese overseas

Immigration blunder: Chinese nursing student invited to UK on scholarship – then invited to leave in handcuffs

Authorities’ visit to house of woman trying to regularise visa status raises fresh questions about removals policy in UK

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 3:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2018, 12:03am

Chinese nursing student Qu Zixuan won a scholarship in 2010 to study health care in London, and was invited to Britain to help fill a shortfall in medical staff. Eight years later she was invited to leave, as men with handcuffs raided her home.

Details have emerged of a dawn immigration enforcement operation by six officers, showing a “distressing” and “intimidating” sequence of events. 

The officers later admitted they were in the wrong when they entered Qu’s home and ordered her to leave Britain, even though her visa application was still being processed.

The visit to the home of a woman who was in the process of regularising her visa status has raised fresh questions about the fairness and efficiency of Britain’s Home Office policy.

An enforcement team visited the home of Qu and her fiancé, Duncan Watkinson, at around 5.30am on May 1. 

They searched the property and told Qu she had “no leave to remain in the UK” and that she had been classified as an “immigration offender”.

After 25 minutes in the couple’s home, the officials appeared to acknowledge an error had been made and retreated, leaving Qu terrified and Watkinson in tears.

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The couple are angry that immigration staff carrying handcuffs descended on their home in an apparent effort to take Qu into detention, when they believe she has done nothing wrong. 

Qu said she had never been notified that there might be a problem and believed that her visa application was still in the process of being considered.

Qu, 29, came to the UK in 2010, after winning a scholarship to study health and social care. Representatives from a British college had visited her nursing school in Sichuan province, China, encouraging students to apply for their course, explaining that the National Health Service needed to recruit health care workers. Qu was the only student to pass the necessary exams, and she moved to the UK.

In 2014 she submitted an application to extend her student visa. She received a letter from the Home Office saying it was considering her case, but it explained that her application, like thousands of other visa applications at the time, was complicated by a government decision to suspend an English-language proficiency test that she and tens of thousands of other students had to take as part of their student visa applications, amid concerns over irregularities in the test results nationally.

I sat down on the floor and started to cry
Duncan Watkinson

The letter stated: “Please be assured that we will make a decision on your case as quickly as possible … We will not take removal action as a result of the contents of this letter.”

The crisis over the TOEIC English-language exam resulted in around 45,000 students’ visas being cancelled and many of them being deported through no fault of their own, because of suspicions about the way some colleges were administering the officially accredited test.

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After that letter in 2014, Qu said, she received no further communication from the Home Office until a letter arrived a few days after the visit this month, telling her that she was “liable for removal”. 

She had hired a lawyer in 2015 to help her because she was worried about the silence and the continuing uncertainty. 

When her lawyers contacted the Home Office on her behalf last year, they were told there were no updates.

The Home Office has held her passport since 2014, as officials processed her application. Qu, who switched to studying for a business degree after getting her health and social care qualification, is upset that this has meant she has not been able to travel home to visit her elderly grandparents who brought her up.

Qu and Watkinson, 37, planned to get married last September and they booked a wedding venue and sent out invitations. 

However, the event had be cancelled at the last minute because without Qu’s passport, the wedding could not go ahead. 

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Two requests sent by her lawyer to the Home Office for a certified copy of the passport so they could register the marriage went unanswered.

Anxious to resolve the situation, in April Qu and Watkinson paid more than £2,000 (US$2,700) for a Home Office “one-day premium” visa processing service, and they were given an appointment for May 16.

During the officials’ visit to their home, Watkinson repeatedly expressed his confusion about why Qu was being targeted two weeks before this premium-service appointment. 

Initially he was told by staff that they were there because, according to their information, Qu had been classified as an immigration offender.

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By the end of the visit he was told the officials had found a note of the appointment, and the team agreed to leave.

Watkinson said staff began their operation in a very intimidating manner. 

“They came in without showing me anything. I opened the door and the first thing that happened was one of the officers put their hands on my chest and pushed me back into the room. Following him were six or seven others.”

He said he felt angry and distressed afterwards. 

“I sat down on the floor and started to cry; the adrenaline is so high when you’re facing it. After they’ve gone, I broke down, [wondering]: ‘Why did they do that? What have we done wrong? Have we missed something? Have we made a mistake?’”

If Watkinson had not been there, Qu said, she would not have had the confidence to stand up to the immigration team. 

Every year there are an estimated 6,000 immigration visits to workplaces in the UK, according to a Home Office intelligence document leaked in 2014. 

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Every month there are dozens of immigration visits to people’s homes. EU human rights group have campaigned for governments to stop using dawn raids in immigration cases, but they remain relatively common in the UK.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Ms Qu has overstayed her visa since January 2014. Her last removal notice was served in January 2018. Ms Qu had not made an application to the Home Office simply by booking and paying for the appointment. The application is not made until she actually turns up to the appointment and submits the application.”

Watkinson said he was puzzled by this response. “We have never received any notice of refusal from the Home Office dated January 18 or any other date, and neither has our lawyer,” he said.

Qu’s representative at the immigration advice firm Visa Direct said: “Visa Direct has never received any response to any of our communications with the Home Office in relation to Ms Qu’s visa application submitted in 2014.”

He was also puzzled by the suggestion that removal notices had been sent to Qu, adding that it was normal practice for the Home Office to send this kind of document by recorded delivery, so it was unlikely that Home Office notification letters had gone to the wrong address.