Visa delays leave foreign students stranded in UK for Christmas

London mayor intervenes after film school students were asked to hand over passports to Border Agency in November

Scores of international students have been stranded without passports and are unable to get home for Christmas after the UK Border Agency asked them to reapply for their visas.

London School of Film students from as far afield as the US, India, Russia and Lebanon were asked to hand over their passports to the Border Agency in November so they could be issued with new study permits, following the decision to strip London Metropolitan University of its “higher trusted status” before the start of the academic year.

The Guardian understands that London Met, which sponsors the students and issues degrees on behalf of the film school, also has hundreds of international students who are unable to get home due to lengthy delays at the Border Agency, despite being promised a fast-track service.

Education vice-president at London Met, Syed Rumman, said he believed around 600-700 Met Uni students were stuck because UKBA still had their passports.

After a petition by the film students, the office of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, said it had written to the Border Agency to try to expedite the process.

Nick Refuerzo, 27, from Fresno, California, who is studying for an MA, said he was unable to fly back to visit his ill grandmother and diabetic uncle for what he had been told could be their last Christmas.

“I never spend a Christmas away from home. We’re Filipinos so we eat a lot, we drink a lot. There’s a big roast pig and with a lot of karaoke. My family live all over California and it’s the one time we all come together,” Refuerzo said.”Everyone’s getting really old. My grandma, she’s dying. My uncle has [type two] diabetes and they keep saying it might be their last Christmas.”

Nathan Deming, 23, said he would be missing out on a picture-perfect Christmas in Wisconsin for the first time. “There is a foot of snow in Wisconsin,” he said. “We always meet up with the whole family in a cabin and drink hot chocolate and go sledding.” He said he might end up celebrating with fellow students around their mini-tree in their shared London flat.

Tara Verma, 24, a second-year MA student from New Delhi, was unsure how she would spend Christmas. She said she had already missed her best friend’s wedding and had to cancel a £700 flight to India.

London Met was stripped of its higher trusted status in late August, ending its ability to enrol and teach foreign students. In response, some universities across the UK have introduced more stringent monitoring of foreign student attendance.

In September Coventry University made it mandatory for foreign students to check in three times during the working week and to swipe their photo ID at manned check-in points around its city centre campus. Glamorgan University has introduced weekly ID scans for its students during term time.

Newcastle University considered using biometric finger-swipe registration in response to Border Agency rules, although it has since dropped the plans.

In the autumn London Met was granted a reprieve to help current students graduate or switch to other higher education establishments. But Verma, who has paid £24,000 a year in fees, said the process of re-enlisting for film school had been extremely complicated.

“It was really confused and chaotic. We had no idea what we were supposed to do and how we were supposed to go about it. I haven’t been back [home] for a year and I was really looking forward to going back because it was my best friends’ wedding … I’m still quite upset about missing it,” she said.

“They [the British government] keep saying immigration is a problem for everything … You read this whole thing about somehow we claim benefits, steal jobs, we are making the housing problems worse … it’s unfair. When I talk to my friends who want to study here I tell them don’t, what’s the point, they’re going to throw you out in any case.”

A spokesperson for the mayor said: “Although this issue falls outside of the mayor’s jurisdiction, City Hall officials are aware of the situation and have written to the UK Border Agency in an attempt to encourage a speedy resolution.”

The Border Agency said it had returned one passport a few days ago through registered post. It said other applications were still being processed but where requests had been made for return by 20 December, passports had been dispatched. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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