Human traffickers ‘use UK universities as cover’

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Universities have been urged to be on high alert for human trafficking after alleged victims brought to Britain on student visas disappeared from their courses and were found working in exploitative conditions hundreds of miles away.

In a recent case, Indian students from the universities of Greenwich, Chester and Teesside stopped attending lectures shortly after arriving in the UK, according to a report by the Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority (GLAA) seen by the Observer.

They were later found in the care sector in Wales, where they lived in squalid conditions with up to 12 people in a three-bed flat, and worked “up to 80 hours a week, sometimes double shifts”, by “manner of below the minimum wage.

“[The students’] attendance at the university was low or non-existent and, in some cases, other people logged in for them at conferences to give the impression that they were attending,” the report says.

comes after a Observer The investigation uncovered widespread labor exploitation in care homes across Britain, with workers from India, the Philippines and countries in Africa having been charged up to £18,000 in illegal recruitment fees and in some cases forced to work in conditions similar to debt bondage. pay the money owed, with their wages intercepted and passports withheld.

In those cases, many of the alleged victims had come to Britain on legitimate skilled worker visas brought in by the Home Office to help fill shortages in the care sector.

The new evidence sheds light on other routes being exploited by smugglers and rogue agents in response to increased demand for cheap workers amid a growing labor shortage in the UK.

A Observer The investigation uncovered labor exploitation in care homes involving workers from India, the Philippines and Africa. Photograph: Paula Solloway/Alamy

In the case identified by the GLAA, workers are understood to have received only 16 hours of online training and in most cases had not undergone criminal background checks, raising concerns about potential risks to older residents. and disabled. According to reports, the nursing homes that hired them were unaware of their backgrounds because the alleged exploiters, who ran a staffing agency, provided them with false information.

In another case, students were found living on property in Birmingham where their passports were confiscated and they were forced to work in sweatshop conditions, according to Unseen UK, which runs a modern slavery helpline.

The students, who were also from India and reportedly spoke little English, were allegedly forced to work 24-hour shifts without a break and were paid so little they could not afford to eat, according to the charity. The case was referred to the police.

Meri Åhlberg, research manager at Focus on Labor Exploitation, said the abuse of people on student visas was a growing concern in Britain due to labor shortages. “There have been students who have been pressured to work in ways that do not comply with their visa and that makes them really vulnerable to exploitation because their employer can tell them that they will be reported to the immigration authorities or they will lose their right to be in the country” , she said.

The findings have prompted calls for tighter scrutiny of student visas and warnings for universities to be on alert, with the GLAA saying they must monitor student applications, attendance and fee payments for signs of modern slavery.

The University of Nottingham Law Laboratory, the world’s largest group of modern slavery researchers, has also described the recruitment of international students as a high-risk area in British universities. and warned in a recent campus report that student visas could be used to facilitate human trafficking.

Despite the increased risks, he said there was limited recognition of vulnerable students, with only 7.7% of the universities he examined providing specific training to staff in pastoral roles. She has put together a plan to help universities tackle modern day slavery, with recommendations including better staff training and dedicated task forces.

International students are a key source of income for universities, with an estimated 605,130 in the UK in 2020-21, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, with three quarters of them coming from outside the EU. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that international student fees represent around 17% of the total income of the sector.

Related: Ministers ‘fail to protect’ people trafficked to UK as modern day slaves

Universities with a license can sponsor students to come to the UK as long as they have an offer of a place on a course, and applicants are generally required to have enough money to support themselves and cover their fees and good language skills. English. Once they arrive in the UK, their sponsoring university must monitor their attendance, participation and absences.

Universities UK, which represents 140 universities, said there were very low levels of abuse in the student system and many of its members “go beyond what is formally required by the Home Office” to prevent students from being exploited. Additional steps he recommends colleges take to prevent abuse include introducing pre-application screening calls to ensure applicants’ credibility and higher deposit requirements.

Teesside University said it took a “rigorous approach” to student safety and well-being. Attendance was monitored and there were channels for students to seek support.

A recent Home Office compliance inspection, involving a Higher Education Assurance Team Audit, resulted in the university’s processes meeting the necessary standards, a spokesman said. The Universities of Chester and Greenwich were contacted for comment.

The Home Office said: “Criminals who force people into modern slavery for commercial gain will be tracked down and brought to justice. We have given law enforcement agencies the powers and resources to take action when exploitation is detected.

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