‘Treated like a criminal’: Nepali student wrongly detained at UK border loses uni place

<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

An international student who flew to the UK to take up a university scholarship was detained at the border and held in custody for 12 days after being unable to answer detailed questions about his course.

Sulav Khadka said he felt as though he had been “treated like a criminal” by Border Force officers who accused him of being a fake student after he landed at Manchester airport in October. The 23-year-old, from Nepal, had a valid visa, proof of his university place and paperwork showing he had paid his first year’s fees in full. But, on arrival in the UK, he was interrogated about intricate details of his course, including being asked to list the titles of the six modules he would be studying.

After a 16-hour journey and having not yet started the degree, he could name only two. He was also asked the name of the exam body that would award his qualification but did not know. That and the fact a letter from his bank in Nepal contained a spelling error led Border Force officers to conclude that he was seeking to evade immigration controls, was not really a student and that he had “little interest” in his course, according to documents seen by the Observer.

Khadka was subsequently transferred to an immigration removal centre in Scotland and told he would be deported. Even after the university’s admissions office provided documents proving he had a place on the course, and confirming that he had paid the course fees, as he had claimed, he was held for a further 10 days.

I couldn’t understand why he detained me. They gave me lots of reasons but I could justify every reason they gave me

Sulav Khadka

He was eventually released by the Home Office, which gave him an apology letter saying it had “carefully reviewed” his case and that an error had been made. But by the time it had realised its mistake, Khadka had missed the cut-off for enrolling in his university. When he arrived at his university campus in York on 24 October, he was told it was a week past the late enrolment deadline and that his sponsorship had been withdrawn so he would have to return next year. He is now in limbo, having borrowed thousands of pounds to cover flights, fees and relocation costs, and faces returning home in debt without a clear route to stay in the UK.

“I was treated like a criminal but I did nothing wrong. I couldn’t understand why he detained me. They gave me lots of reasons but I could justify every reason they gave me,” Khadka said. “I showed them my documents and they even called my university. I had all the papers, but they didn’t believe me. This will have a big effect on my future.”

The experience of being detained, threatened with deportation and blocked from his studies has been traumatising for Khadka, who was to be the first in his family to study abroad. He says he cried each night in detention while waiting to learn of his fate.

For him, the offer of a place studying hospitality and tourism at York St John University was an opportunity to transform his family’s future. He had hoped to return to Nepal to work in the country’s growing tourism industry after completing the £13,000 a year course, for which he had received a partial scholarship.

The day he left Nepal, 11 October, his family and friends gathered at the airport in Kathmandu, gave him an orange scarf for good luck and posed for photos grinning proudly by his side. On Facebook, friends and relatives sent him dozens of messages wishing him a safe flight, littered with love hearts and aeroplane emojis.

After being blocked from taking up his studies, he could not bear to tell them what had happened at first. “I was so excited to study in the UK. I lied to them at first because I didn’t want them to worry about me,” he said.

It also raises questions about why he was detained at all and will add to fears about increasingly hostile treatment for international students. It comes amid reports that the government intends to curb immigration figures by reducing the number of international students, a plan described by the National Union of Students as “hugely cruel”.

Fizza Qureshi, chief executive of the Migrants’ Rights Network, described the case as a “genuinely appalling situation” that shows how “hostile environment policies are embedded in the education system”.

Campaign group Unis Resist Border Controls said it had provided support for several students who had been subjected to “harsh immigration questioning at the border.

“And this level of harassment gets more pronounced if you are racialised or come from countries in the global south,” a spokesperson for the group said.

Another student who arrived in the UK last month said he too had been interrogated at the airport. “The officer first asked about my university details and, after that, most of the questions were related to my finances, even though I had provided all the financial evidence while applying for my visa,” he said. “There were some Pakistani students besides us who were kept in a separate place for not being able to show [their] bank balance in a mobile app. God knows what happened to them.”

As well as asking Khadka to list modules in his course, Border Force accused him of having fake documents, citing a spelling error in a letter from his bank in Nepal as proof, and adding that it was “inconceivable” that such a “prestigious financial institution” would issue documents of “such risible quality”. Almost immediately afterwards, the Border Force letter itself makes several spelling mistakes. “You have liittle [sic] knowledge of your porposed [sic] course and I am therefore drawn to the conclusion that you have little or no interest in it,” it says, misspelling “little” and “proposed”.

In addition, it cited a discrepancy over the amount Khadka had paid. While he said he had paid £9,250 before his arrival, the letter from Border Force says that the university admissions office claimed he had paid only £6,616. A spokeswoman for York St John University denied incorrect information had been provided to Border Force and said it had provided a “standard response” to questions about whether Khadka had paid 50% of his first-year fee – the minimum amount required to secure his place.

It subsequently supplied documents supporting Khadka’s account but said that, even after sending these, he was detained for a further 10 days.

Asked why the university had not held Khadka’s place open for him in the exceptional circumstances, the spokeswoman said that it had been required to report all non-enrolments to the government on 17 October. “On this date, Sulav was still in detention in a holding facility and we understood that he was being returned to Nepal,” she said. She added that starting the course late was “not in a student’s interests”.

In an email sent to Khadka after he pleaded for its help, the university said it could not change the decision and advised him to “return to Nepal soon” so that he does not “run the risk of overstaying when your visa gets curtailed”. It also offered to pay his visa application fees for September 2023. In a comment to the Observer, the university said it had since offered to help with travel costs and temporary accommodation, as well as a tuition-fee refund, but that Khadka had not yet accepted this.

The Home Office was asked detailed questions about Khadka’s case but did not answer them, saying it did not routinely comment on individual cases. A spokesperson said: “We have a crucial role in keeping the UK and its citizens safe. Border Force’s priority is to maintain a secure border and we will not compromise on security.” When the Observer pointed out that Khadka had never posed a security threat, the spokesperson said: “Thank you for your questions, however this is our statement.”

Universities UK said the case was “extremely concerning”, adding: “International students are a huge benefit to the UK. They should feel safe, secure, and welcome.”