UPDATE – STUDY RESTRICTIONS: Despite Home Office policy revision, student prevented from sitting end of year university exams and another loses university scholarship opportunity

Since March 2018, the Harrow Public Law team at Duncan Lewis has represented eighteen clients restricted from studying by the Home Office as part of their ‘immigration bail’ conditions. The Home Office substantially amended their policy on study restrictions in May 2018 and said that they had solved the problem. However, we still receive referrals of individuals restricted from studying, and two clients have recently been prevented from sitting their important end of year exams at college and university as a result of study restrictions.

Hostile environment enables Home Office to restrict asylum seekers’ studies

We blogged about this issue last year and you can read the background here. In summary, the Immigration Act 2016 brought in many new provisions designed to enact the ‘hostile environment’. In January 2018, provisions in the 2016 Act introducing a new regime of ‘immigration bail’ came into force. As a result, asylum seekers and other people without leave to remain in the UK were issued with new ‘Bail 201’ forms containing the conditions under which they are allowed to stay in the UK.

Prior to March 2018, under the old ‘temporary admission’ regime, these conditions had generally consisted of restrictions preventing asylum seekers from working, requiring them to report at a Home Office reporting centre, and perhaps requiring them to live in a particular address.

In March 2018, however, we started receiving many reports of asylum seekers being restricted from studying as well. This caused major disruption – we had clients unable to attend educational therapy, ESOL classes or sit their GCSE exams. In some cases, clients who were also care leavers supported by local authorities were threatened with loss of their accommodation and weekly financial support, as this support was contingent on their remaining in education.

In every single case, the Home Office conceded that the restriction should not apply to our client, and removed it. However, in eight cases, we had to issue court proceedings in order to achieve this.

Revision of Home Office guidance to reduce incidence of study restrictions

In May 2018, the Home Office revised its ‘Immigration Bail’ guidance, making significant amendments to the section on study restrictions. This new version (and the most recent version 4.0) contained a lot more detail on to whom and when a study restriction should be applied. It clarifies that asylum seekers with a pending asylum claim should not be restricted from studying. It particularly highlights care leavers as a category of people who should not be restricted. It requires the Home Office to take upcoming exams into account when deciding whether or not to restrict an individual. It established a procedure whereby decisions to restrict study would have to be signed off by a senior caseworker.

Brutal, devastating disruption continues

Despite this, we have represented two clients in the past two months whose studies have been brutally disrupted as a result of Home Office study restrictions. Both were managing to achieve academic excellence despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

H is a care leaver supported by a local authority, but was studying an Access course and had conditional offers from four universities. He is a dependent on his parents’ pending asylum claims. During the course of applying for a scholarship to cover the cost of the course, he was informed that he did not have the right to study. He had noticed the restriction the previous year but had been told by his previous solicitors that it was an error and not to worry about it. We issued court proceedings, but the Court refused to grant an injunction to allow him to be considered for the scholarship, and as a result he lost the opportunity. Since the court proceedings were issued, the Home Office conceded that the restriction should not apply to him, and have removed it. However, the damage had been done; our client was unable to accept his university offers.

A is currently ‘appeals rights exhausted’, but has an appointment next month (July 2019) to submit further representations. Ineligible for student finance due to her lack of immigration status, A applied to and won a competitive scholarship offered by her university to cover her tuition fees and living expenses. She was on track to complete her first year of studies towards becoming a cancer researcher. Two weeks before her exams started, A’s university told her that the Home Office had said that she no longer had the right to study. No reasons were given; no one asked A whether she was studying or whether she had exams coming up. A did not even receive the form containing the restriction directly, but rather via the university. As a result, A has missed her end of year exams and has had to issue court proceedings to attempt to restore her right to study, which are still ongoing.

What has struck me most in speaking to these clients is the vital importance of their studies to their mental health, and how devastating the disruption has been to them both. Asylum seekers are forced to wait for years in uncertainty, not knowing what the outcome will be, and not knowing how long the wait will be. Living in asylum accommodation, being unable to work, being faced with hostility and discrimination, can all make people feel excluded and as though their lives are stuck on pause, making no progress. Education is a vital path to feeling included, and feeling like they are moving forward in at least one aspect of their lives. A told me her first year of university was like a ‘dream’, that it was the first time since she can remember that she felt ‘normal’ and like she was allowed to do what other young women her age were doing. H poured all his energies into his studies, the one part of his life that he feels that he can control and excel at. Having their studies taken away has devastated and overwhelmed them, triggering existing mental health conditions.

In both of these cases, the Court refused to grant interim relief to allow our clients to study, and not miss their exams and application deadlines. In refusing interim relief, the Court has focused on the fact that the Home Office has the power under the Immigration Act 2016 and its policy guidance to impose these conditions. It is deeply disappointing that the Home Office is not being held to account for its failure to consider the brutal impact on these clients when deciding whether it is necessary to restrict these clients’ studies.

Everyone who has heard about these cases has reacted with complete confusion as to why studies would be restricted. What is the point? What is the legitimate purpose being achieved? How can it be right to prohibit young people from learning? Given that the purpose of ‘immigration bail’ is to maintain contact with people without leave to remain in the UK, how does preventing them from studying achieve this?

We will continue to challenge these disproportionate, pointless and capricious restrictions; and to fight for our clients’ right to study.

Image via Flickr - GoToVan