Britain is using simple tax errors as a reason to deport migrants

Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Filling out tax returns can be complicated, and it’s easy to make a mistake. But for 33-year-old Nisha Mohite, one simple mistake resulted in her losing her job, her home, and her right to remain in the UK.

And she’s not alone. At least 1,000 migrants—including doctors, engineers, and scientists—are being denied settled status for simple mistakes such as errors in tax returns, according to the support group Highly Skilled Migrants.

Mohite migrated to the UK on a student visa in 2008. She was 23 and had just finished her bachelor of pharmacy degree. Once she completed her masters in pharmaceutical analysis, she got a post-study work visa and soon accepted a job within the pharmaceutical industry as an analyst in January 2010. She then applied for a Tier One general visa (pdf)—a visa that now no longer exists, but used to be handed to highly skilled migrants grounded on a points-based system (more points are given to those with, for example, higher salaries and qualifications). In 2016, once studying and working in the UK for eight years, she applied for indefinite leave to remain, which gives her the right to permanently live in the UK.

It was then that “everything went upside down,” says Mohite.

Mohite had her application for settled status rejected. She was accused of deceiving the Home Office, the government department in charge of immigration. Her deception? She had submitted incorrect earnings in 2010-11, which led to a tax discrepancy of £15,600 ($21,074). She says that in 2013 when she realized she made the mistake, she had corrected it and paid the tax that was owed.

“Your actions in declaring different amounts of income to HMRC and UKVI lead to the conclusion that in light of your character and conduct it would be undesirable to allow you to remain in the United Kingdom,” the rejection letter notes. Mohite’s rejection was made under paragraph 322(5) (pdf) of UK immigration rules—a section of the Immigration Rules that denies people the right to remain in the UK because of their character, behavior, or if they are a threat to national security. Mohite was stunned that an accountancy error, which she said she had corrected years ago in advance to her application for settled status, had resulted in her being lumped in with those who are a threat to national security.

Once she was refused on these grounds, Mohite lost her right to work, rent accommodation, and access certain services in the UK. “One moment, you’re earning more than £35,000 and the next moment you’re absolutely nothing,” she says.

Aditi Bhardwaj, one of the organizers of Highly Skilled Migrants, says she is actively working with 400 people in a similar situation to Mohite. “Why put a label on them exactly the same as you would for a terrorist?” she adds.

The group launched a petition calling on the government to “stop abusing the national security clause” to deny migrants like Mohite settled status. It has over 30,000 signatures so far.

The support group blames the string of high-profile refusals on the government’s previous decision to create a “hostile environment” for so-called illegal migrants in Britain. They say the policy, which denies undocumented migrants the right to access Britain’s National Health Service, rent, work, or even open a bank account, is making the UK unlivable for those lawfully residing in the UK.

Hostile environment

When the Conservative Party came into power in 2010, they did so with the promise to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands.” The hostile environment policy was supposed to help the government bring migration numbers down. While net migration has dropped recently, the government is nowhere near to reaching that target. (It currently stands at 244,000). Migrants who have been denied settlement and left in limbo say they are the human collateral of the government’s dogged commitment to bringing numbers down.

When prime minister Theresa May was home secretary in 2010, she closed the Tier One general visa category for new application. She claimed: “At least 30% of Tier One migrants work in low-skilled occupations such as stacking shelves, driving taxis or working as security guards and some don’t have a job at all.” It was then restricted further for those wishing to extend their permission to say in the UK in this category from April 2015. This year, on April 6, Tier One visa holders could no longer apply for settlement.

There is a growing scandal around the Home Office’s use of paragraph 322(5). The immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, has been accused of misleading the home affairs committee, a parliamentary watchdog body, over her knowledge of the use of paragraph 322(5) to deny highly skilled migrants settlement in the UK. Nokes has claimed she only recently learned of the issue, but the Guardian has reported that she wrote detailed letters about the immigration rule months ago.

Zeena Luchowa, a solicitor in the UK Immigration team at Laura Devine Solicitors, says she’s seen “individuals increasingly having problems when they are trying to extend their leave or apply for indefinite leave to remain.” The requirements to apply for settlement are already pretty stringent, but she has seen cases where applicants are being rejected because of “their conduct, character, or associations.” Errors in tax returns falls under bad character. Worst still, people who challenge Home Office refusals through the appeals process are waiting 52 weeks on average. 

It’s been nearly two years since Mohite first applied for settled status. Her lawyer said her rejection must be an administration error and told her to reapply. But even when she pointed out the simple accounting mistake in her re-application, she was rejected again in December 2017. She says “it’s not a fight for visa anymore, it’s a fight for my dignity.” She has applied for a judicial review of the Home Office’s decision and points out that she can’t accept leaving the UK on these terms, as to be deported under paragraph 322 (5) it would make it incredibly difficult to get a working visa elsewhere.

Tahir Saleem, his wife, Shaista Parveen, and their two children, aged six and four, are fighting a battle that echoes Mohite’s. “We’re just fighting. We can be deported any time,” he says.

Saleem migrated to the UK on a student visa in 2008 and met his wife shortly after. They met while studying for masters degrees in international business at the London School of Commerce. They got married in 2012; Saleem then became a dependent on his wife’s Tier One general visa.

Saleem was a bank manager for Lloyd’s Bank and Nationwide in branches in east London until 2014, when he began working for a company selling health and wellness products. His wife ran a consultancy that advised startups on strategy matters. When their application for settled status in 2016 was denied, the Home Office used paragraph 322 (5) of the Immigration Rules to take away their right to live in the UK, citing a minor tax discrepancy.

Saleem says the error was made by a chartered accountant in 2012. Quartz reviewed a letter from the accountant submitted to the Home Office admitting it had submitted the wrong income figures, which led to the discrepancy of over £50,000 across two tax years.

The Home Office rejected the couple’s applications based on that tax discrepancy. The rejection letter says the couple are deemed “undesirable to remain in the UK” because of “deceitful or dishonest” dealings with the tax and immigration authorities. Once the discrepancy was noticed, Saleem and Parveen set up a plan with the national tax authority to pay down the outstanding balance—a sum of £100 a month which they continue to pay. “They accepted our explanation and removed some of the penalty amount based on the corrections,” he says.

Saleem and his wife then applied for settlement again, with an explanation of the error from their accountant. The Home Office rejected the application a second time, saying the explanation wasn’t credible. Saleem has now hired lawyers to appeal the decision on the basis that paragraph 322(5) should not be applied to the family. “That is for terrorists—our tax correction cannot be deemed as a threat to national security,” he says.

There is a schism in Britain’s migration policy; the country welcomes highly skilled and well-educated migrants to grow the British economy but, at the same time, turfs out migrants for seemingly minor administrative errors. Migrants like Saleem say they have contributed skills to the workforce, paid taxes, and integrated within British society.

“It’s like a couple got together and they mutually benefitted,” says Saleem. ”But after 10 years, for some reason, the man says to the woman, the food you made was not cooked properly. You are of bad character, and you need to get out. This is essentially what has happened to us.” Solicitor Luchowa adds “there is a culture of disbelief that is being applied by the Home Office.”

The Home Office’s actions has not just affected every day working people, it has also affected people in the most privileged positions. For example, Arthur Snell, a former British high commissioner, said his baby was wrongly denied a British passport after being born abroad. Snell was forced to reapply and for two months his child was essentially stateless. He told The Guardian:

Home Office appears to have a policy that says you, the applicant, must prove in the face of a very, very skeptical and negative institution, that you have this right. And, you can expect the Home Office to effectively answer in the negative wherever they can.

When Quartz repeatedly contacted the Home Office over these specific cases as well as its use of paragraph 322(5) to deny migrants the right to live in the UK for tax discrepancies, it referred us to the public immigration database in response to questions about Mohite’s case and others like it.

Tip of the iceberg

The use of paragraph 322(5) to remove migrants for tax discrepancies is the latest in a line of immigration scandals affecting the UK government.

The Windrush scandal has come to epitomize the problems with the hostile environment policy. The Windrush generation, a reference to the Commonwealth citizens who migrated to the UK on to the historic ship MV Empire Windrush, from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands in the Caribbean in 1948, found themselves recently facing deportation despite living in the UK for half a century. When they first travelled from those colonies, which had not yet achieved independence, the British government of the time counted them as British citizens. However, when the government’s decision to focus on cutting migration kicked-in, they struggled to prove their settled status and faced losing their jobs, homes, and livelihood.

In April, the government was forced to apologize to the Windrush generation and has since announced an easier path to citizenship and will hand out compensation to those affected. But other migrants suggest the scandal is just the tip of the iceberg.

Fighting the battle for settled status in the UK is financially crippling. Unable to work, Saleem and Mohite’s debt has rapidly piled up. Mohite has spent £9,000 in her bid to win settled status, while Saleem has spent £35,000 on legal bills. Saleem and his family are living with his brother-in-law, while Mohite is staying with a friend. The mounting debt hasn’t discouraged Saleem. “I’m here fighting for my wife and I wont leave until I prove my wife innocent. I will fight to the end even if I go bankrupt,” he says.

The battle has also had a debilitating impact on people’s mental health. Bhardwaj claims she had her visa rejected from a mistake that the Home Office made themselves. After 18 months, she went to court to legally challenge the Home Office’s refusal. But on the day of the hearing, the Home Office rescinded their rejection. Though she finally was able to get settled status, she didn’t understand why she was subjected to all that trouble for 18 months. She couldn’t sleep over that time and was put on antidepressants.

“I had never thought this would be have to be something I have to face in my life,” she says. Her experience has made her an activist. As part of the group Highly Skilled Migrants, she’s determined to help as many people as possible overturn their refusals.

For Saleem, it is clear that no matter what visa a migrant holds, or what degrees they have, no one is safe from the Home Office’s capriciousness. “It’s only a matter of time. If you don’t stop this hostile environment, Tier Two, Tier Three visa holders, they will be affected if Home Office wants it. They can find a loophole against everybody,” he says. “The one to blame is the hostile environment. Because of these net migration targets, [Home Office] will do whatever it takes. Whoever is an easier target for them, they will use that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Immigration Act, when it should have referred to the Immigration Rules.