The letter that would flip Nazmul Chowdhury’s life upside down arrived in a bright yellow envelope in April 2015.
It was from the Home Office and it accused the 30-year-old Bangladeshi student of illegally paying a proxy to sit an English exam for him so he could cheat his way into staying in the UK.
He seemingly had no reason to cheat – his English was good enough to gain a degree in Business Administration at Central Lancashire University and he had just begun a post-graduate diploma.
Chowdhury insists the accusations are false, a plea echoed by tens of thousands of others who all face detention, deportation and the ruin of their careers after being embroiled in an immigration crackdown by the Home Office.
On Thursday, he and around 100 others supported by the charity Migrant Voice will be demonstrating at Parliament Square Garden, demanding the government put an end to the legal limbo that has paralysed their existences.
The cases all stem from a 2014 BBC Panorama investigation which found widespread fraud over English-language proficiency tests required for visa applications run by the company ETS.
In response, the Home Office accused more than 35,000 students of cheating – a number which included many like Chowdhury who insist to this day they did not commit fraud.
Around the same time, the department, under the leadership of Theresa May, was involved in a number of initiatives that sought to create what she described in 2012 as a “really hostile environment for illegal migration”.
Publicly, the Home Office had been under fire for the infamous “go home” vans, giant mobile billboards featuring the slogan “go home or face arrest” that were driven around London.
At the same time it was sowing the seeds of what would become the Windrush scandal, the wrongful detainment or threatened deportation of migrants who arrived in the UK from the West Indies before 1973.
Together, the measures all sought to meet David Cameron’s 2010 pledge to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands” – a target that has never been met.
But as the Windrush scandal and the case of Chowdhury have dramatically exposed, thousands of people who say they have followed the letter of the law have been embroiled in this drive to create a “hostile environment”.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, Chowdhury describes how he felt when the yellow envelope arrived: “‘My world is finished’, I thought.
“I’d heard about other people who had been accused of this in the news and I knew it was a trap – once you got the accusation, there was no way out, no way to fight it.
“But I never thought it would happen to me.”
For the past five years, Chowdhury, and the others accused of cheating, have faced a battle to carry on studying, while facing the prospect of being deported at any moment.
“They arrested me and told me I would be put on a flight that evening,” Chowdhury says.
“I asked to call my lawyer, but they said I wasn’t allowed to call anyone. I told them I had a case pending with the Home Office, but they said that wasn’t true. I told them I didn’t want to go, but they told me I had no other option and it was better to follow their instructions.
“I was shaking and crying, thinking, today is my day. I only had the clothes I was wearing, an Oyster card and £5 in my pocket.”
But five minutes before the plane was due to take off, Chowdhury was removed from the plane. He later learned his lawyer – a law student friend he had asked to help – had convinced the Home Office he did indeed have a case with them pending.
“But that didn’t stop them locking me up overnight at Harmondsworth detention centre and detaining me for a week at [immigration removal centre] The Verne in Dorset,” he says.
“I felt like a criminal, like I’d killed someone.”
According to the charity Migrant Voice, which is supporting many of the accused, the Home Office has presented no evidence to back up its claims in most cases.
Furthermore, they say that when evidence has been presented it has revealed serious flaws in the department’s claims – one student was accused of cheating on a test in Leicester, despite never visiting the city and providing proof he travelled to a test centre in London on the day in question.
Another student never took the test at all but was still accused of cheating on it.
The Home Office has told many of the accused to ask ETS for the recordings on which its decisions are based – despite the company being subject to a criminal investigation.
But Migrant Voice says those seeking the tapes often hit a blank wall, and on the rare occasion that lawyers have managed to get hold of the recordings, this has not proven that fraud has occurred.
The charity’s director, Nazek Ramadan, told HuffPost UK: “It’s an outrage that thousands of students are still suffering, five years after the first wrongful allegations.
“Many are destitute and suffering severe mental health problems. Unable to travel, most of them have missed funerals and weddings of close family members back home.
“They have been treated as criminals but given no real way to defend themselves from the allegations. If they can’t clear their names, they will struggle to get a job anywhere or a visa for any country in the world. They must be given their futures back.”
A Home Affairs select committee briefing from 2016 called the Home Office’s actions “unacceptable” and called for an inquiry that never materialised.
A particularly damning section reads:
“The Home Office appears to have accepted at face value, and continues to accept, claims of widespread fraud from ETS—a company that was part of the problem, had already been discredited and is subject to criminal investigation.
“It is extraordinary that the Home Office has carried out no independent investigation itself of the allegations of fraud in relation to English language testing and instead has relied on evidence from ETS, one of its approved providers and a party under criminal investigation.
“Despite this, arrests and removals have continued.”
The matter was debated in parliament last September, when Labour MP Mike Gapes said: “This numerically is a bigger scandal than Windrush in terms of people removed and lives destroyed.
“The injustice is grave, the numbers are huge.”
The government refused to budge from its official line that its response had been “measured and proportionate” and it was committed to a fair immigration system.
In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The investigation in 2014 into the abuse of English language testing revealed systemic cheating which was indicative of significant organised fraud.
“The scale of this is shown by the fact that over 20 people who facilitated the fraud have received criminal convictions, with prison sentences totalling 68 years.”
But the criminal cases, such as a trial that concluded in November last year, targeted the perpetrators of the fraud and did nothing to identify those who used the illegal services they provided – or those who didn’t.
For Chowdhury, it did nothing to help clear his name.
“I thought there was justice in this country. I thought you could go to court and get justice if you’ve been wrongly accused of something. But I can’t,” he says.
“I’m losing all hope now. I can’t sleep – I just keep thinking, what am I doing here? All my friends are doing PhDs or have careers now – I’m just stuck.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of the ocean. I can’t see any way out.”