Human traffickers ‘use UK universities as cover’ | Human trafficking

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

In a recent case, Indian students from the universities of Greenwich, Chester and Teesside stopped attending classes 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- shift,” for “way below minimum wage.

“[The students’] college attendance was low or non-existent, and in some cases other people would tune in for them at conferences to make it look like they were there,” the report said.

It comes after a Observer an investigation has revealed widespread labor exploitation in care homes across Britain, with workers from India, the Philippines and African countries accused of being charged up to £18,000 in labor costs illegally recruited and, in some cases, forced to work in conditions akin to debt bondage to repay the money owed, with their wages intercepted and their passports withheld.

In these 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 highlights other routes operated by traffickers and rogue agents in response to increased demand for cheap labor amid a worsening labor shortage in the UK.

A Observer investigation revealed 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 reportedly only completed 16 hours of online training and, in most cases, did not undergo criminal background checks, raising concerns about potential risks to elderly and disabled residents. The nursing homes that hired them were apparently unaware of their backgrounds because false information had been given to them by the alleged exploiters, who ran a personnel agency.

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

The students, who were also from India and spoke little English, were reportedly forced to work around the clock without breaks and paid so little they could not afford to eat, according to the charity. The case was forwarded to the police.

Meri Åhlberg, research manager at Focus on Labor Exploitation, said 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 a way that is inconsistent with their visa and that makes them really vulnerable to exploitation because their employer can tell them that they are going to be reported to the services of the government. immigration or lose their right to be in the country,” she said.

The findings led to calls for increased monitoring of student visas and warnings for universities to be on high alert, with the GLAA saying they should monitor student applications, attendance and fee payment to identify signs of modern slavery.

The University of Nottingham Rights Lab, the world’s largest modern slavery research group, has also described the recruitment of international students as a high-risk area at UK universities. and warned in a recent Campus report that student visas could be used to facilitate human trafficking.

Despite the heightened risks, he said there was limited recognition of vulnerable students, with just 7.7% of the universities he examined offering specific training for staff in pastoral roles. It has drawn up a plan to help universities tackle modern slavery, with recommendations including better staff training and dedicated task forces.

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

Licensed universities can sponsor students to come to the UK provided they have an offer of a place on a course, with applicants generally being required to have enough money to support themselves and cover their fees and good English skills. After they arrive in the UK, their sponsoring university is required to monitor their attendance, engagement and absences.

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

Teesside University said it had taken a “rigorous approach” to student safety and wellbeing. Attendance was monitored and there were channels for students to ask for help.

A recent compliance inspection by the Home Office, which involved an audit of the higher education assurance team, resulted in the university’s processes being found to meet the necessary standards, said a spokesperson. The universities of Chester and Greenwich have been contacted for comment.

The Home Office said: “Criminals who force people into modern slavery for commercial gain will be hunted down and brought to justice. We have given law enforcement agencies the powers and resources to act on abuse.