Guest blog from Luna Williams and Paul McShane from the Immigration Advice Service on the extra pressures on international students caught between COVID-19 and the UK immigration system.

With borders closed, countries locked-down and residents restricted to ‘essential travel only’ policies, uncertainty has become a central facet to our new way of life

While all of us are living through unprecedented and unparalleled times, for some, including international students, the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus is magnified. 

The added pressure of visa requirements and deadlines means that many UK migrants have been caught between COVID-19 related restrictions and the UK’s immigration system.

Overseas students enrolled on courses in the UK have faced mixed messages concerning the restrictions of their Student Visas; many are unsure about whether or not they should still be attempting to meet their visa requirements when they are unable to attend classes and exams, and confused about how they should navigate impending deadlines when they are unable to return home.

Equally, many also face everyday concerns about accommodation and the ability to work and earn money while they study, something that, for many, has been curtailed indefinitely. 

As well as this, the coronavirus pandemic has affected some international communities in other ways. Xenophobic discrimination and hate crime against East-Asian communities has risen sharply since the outbreak of COVID-19 in January, with attacks on students from these ethnic groups reported to have  taken place both and outside of universities. 

Visa extensions

At present, the Home Office has allowed a blanket visa extension for any migrant living in the UK who is unable to return home because of the coronavirus.

If you are in the UK and your leave has expired/is due to expire before 31 May 2020, you will be eligible to have your leave to remain extended until this date (which was extended to 31 July shortly after this blog was published). 

Individuals facing this situation must inform the specially-dedicated Coronavirus Immigration Team to notify them of their circumstances. 

When doing so, they should explain when their leave to remain was/is due to expire. They should include their visa number and any other important details relating to this. They should then demonstrate why they are unable to return home in time for their visa deadline (for example, if flights between the UK and their home country have been curtailed). 

This process is free. To contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team, affected students should email CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk. The team aim to respond within 5 working days. Until a decision is reached, the applicant is legally able to remain in the UK without being considered in breach of their leave. 

Waiving visa duties

The UK Home Office is also waiving a number of requirements on Tier 2, Tier 5 and Tier 4 sponsors, such as allowing non-EU nationals here under work or study routes to undertake their work or study from home.

In practice, this means that students will not be penalised for not attending physical classes or lectures of exams that have been cancelled in order to meet the government’s isolation policies. 

While this does still leave many Tier 4 students in a state of limbo with regards to the progress of their courses, it does clarify things from an immigration standpoint as those affected will not need to worry about being in breach of their visa by staying at home. 

As well as waiving attendance duties, the UK Visas and Immigration division of the Home Office (UKVI) has also said that there is no longer a limit on how many hours students are able to work. Previously this was capped, meaning international students could only work part-time. 

Now students will be able to take on more hours. This move has been taken to help ease the financial burden on the coronavirus on international students and their employers.

Other guidance for international students

The Home Office has also issued a guidance document and we have provided some key points from it below:

  • Distance learning is now approved
  • If you need to retake a module or resit (or repeat an academic year) then you do not have to show academic progression
  • Police registration is also suspended
  • If your sponsor has suspended study or you are a key worker such as a doctor, paramedic or nurse, then the 20-hour a week working restriction has been lifted
  • Rent checks can be carried out remotely
  • Discretion will be shown if you apply for a time period that takes you over the normal maximum time on a Tier 4 visa
  • Universities can self-assess English-language competence, as testing centres are closed during the pandemic

Shorter term students should note the following:

  • If you want to switch to a Tier 4 visa, some applications may be allowed “on an exceptional basis”
  • If you have been given a stay of exceptional leave extension, then you will be permitted to study on a further course which deviates from your original one
  • Short-term study leave cannot be extended

Xenophobia

Sadly, xenophobia has been rising in the UK since the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and it is particularly concerning for international students who may have been affected or targeted racially. 

This has been primarily targeted at East-Asian individuals and victims have included students from both the UK and overseas. 
This adds an extra facet to the ways in which international student communities have felt the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences. 

Many, who already feel overwhelmed by the situation, have felt they are trapped by visa laws and restrictions in a country which is hostile and unwelcoming. 

Support

In addition to immigration advice, this Universities UK link provides students with support which includes welfare, health, admissions and international advice.

There is also a useful link here to some information about refunds which may help some international students. 
For questions on topics such as exams, fees, loans, accommodation and support, including support with mental health needs, the Government has set up a page which covers the latest information available to students in these areas.

  • Also see Coronavirus (COVID-19) info for international students from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)

Luna Williams and Paul McShane, Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that provides legal support for international students in the UK.  

Main image: Hindustan Times/Bloomberg