Migrants use student loan scam to get visas
By Nicola Smith and Vikram Verma
The Sunday Times (London), December 20, 2009
Serious loopholes in immigration rules are potentially allowing thousands of young Indians to enter Britain on falsely obtained student visas, an investigation by The Sunday Times has found.
Undercover reporters found foreign agents offering would-be students 10,500 loans so they can convince the UK Border Agency in their visa applications that they have enough money in their bank account to pay fees and support themselves in Britain.
The money is handed back to the lender as soon as it has appeared on bank statements for a month. The cost to the student is a 7% interest charge and 200 processing fee, which amounts to about 935.
In a covertly filmed investigation, The Sunday Times has established that the scam is operating widely in towns in Punjab, northwest India. It threatens to undermine new Home Office immigration rules which ministers insisted would reduce the number of new arrivals.
Instead, the number of visas granted to Indian students has nearly doubled in the past year, from 29,000 to 52,000. It is feared that many have no intention of studying and simply disappear after entering the UK.
The new points-based entry system was created by Liam Byrne, the former immigration minister and now chief secretary to the treasury.
Students need 40 points to come to Britain. They receive 30 for holding a course offer from a college or university and 10 for proving that they can pay fees and support themselves.
When the system was introduced in March, Jacqui Smith, then home secretary, said it would force immigrants to 'play by the rules'.
In the dusty farming towns of the Punjab, however, the system has fuelled a thriving industry to supply student visas, often by dubious means.
Billboard advertisements openly offer them for 2,000, as poor would-be immigrants seek out office blocks known locally as 'visa factories'.
Vikram Choudhri, criminal lawyer to the chief minister of Punjab, said: 'Thousands of students are going to the UK every year to work and earn there. Their main motive is to go and settle and very few go to reputable universities.'
Under the new rules, students have to show they have 7,200 in their bank accounts plus the first years fees for a course in London, or 5,400 plus a years fees for a course outside the capital.
An undercover reporter last week approached five visa agencies in different Punjabi towns seeking help to move to the UK, emphasising that his intention was to find a job rather than study. In four cases the agencies offered him a loan as 'proof' that he could fund the course.
In Jalandhar, Academic Overseas Education Consultants were eager to help.
Neha Trikha, the admission manager, told the reporter he would need more than 8,000 in his account to apply for a student visa. When the reporter said he did not have the money, Trikha replied: 'This is a basic problem. Everyone has this problem. Funds can be arranged. We would charge you 7% interest on it.'
The company said it could 'assure' the reporter of a place at a British college in March and named three where courses would be available.
When the reporter emphasised again that his real goal was to work rather than study, Trikha said: 'Our job is to send you there. You are allowed to work four hours [a day]. It is illegal but it is up to you if you want to work more than four hours. Your friends in London will help you with that.'
Garry Singh, the director, later said his company did not provide such loans and denied it had given the reporter any improper advice.
The nearby Peridot Consultancy also offered a loan. Mohit Aneja said it would be 'no issue' supplying the money for a charge of 35,000 rupees (460). 'We will get it done,' he said. When confronted, Aneja denied he had offered the loan and said he had done nothing wrong.
Anshu Sharma, from the Bona Fide Institute for Foreign Languages, did not offer a loan but said the UK system was lenient. '[Because] the deposit doesnt have to be from a blood relation, anyone can show money on your behalf,' she said.
'Nobody has that amount of money in their account. [Financiers] are in demand and they are charging somewhere around 7%-10% for show money.' A spokesman later insisted the company would never advocate using loans for visa applications.
Anchu Thaper, a moneylender from Ludhiana, said he had supplied seven clients in the last year with funds for student visas. 'In normal practice, UK study visas are given in 28 days,' he said. 'You just need [800,000-1.2m] rupees (10,000- 16,000) in your bank account for that 28 days. People take out the money and then return it when they get the visa.'
Rakesh Kumar Jaiswal, senior superintendent of police in Jalandhar, said there was a 'craze' among young people to emigrate. 'Its very tempting for the youth to want to go abroad and settle there but they dont know what the visa procedure is and they get trapped in a vicious cycle of racketeers,' he said.
It is not clear how many people using the scams uncovered by The Sunday Times have managed to enter Britain. A Home Office spokesman said bank statements from India were not taken at face value and where applications were suspicious further checks and interviews were carried out.
In neighbouring Pakistan, however, checks appear to have been less than thorough. In September, the Home Office reported that just 29 out of 66,000 visa applicants from Pakistan had been interviewed in the past year.