London, United Kingdom – A Cambridge University research fellow, who has lived in the United Kingdom for 10 years and is widely celebrated as an exceptional sociologist, has been denied permanent residency.
Academics have rallied behind 31-year-old Asiya Islam, who is originally from India, saying her case sets a worrying precedent and does not appear to match up with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid to attract “global talent” in the wake of Brexit.
Islam received the news in November, with the Home Office denying her “indefinite leave to remain”, an immigration status that would have meant there was no time limit on her ability to stay in the UK.
“As a migrant in this country, you are always on edge about these things,” Islam told Al Jazeera. “If you want to attract global talent, you have to make the country hospitable for global talent. My case shows it’s not.
“I’ve been here for 10 years. This is where my life is. My work is here, but my life is also very much here.”
Islam spent a year in New Delhi between 2016 and 2017 completing research for her PhD.
Before travelling, she informed Cambridge University that she was planning to apply for permanent residency. Staff at the university then consulted the Home Office, and were assured that authorised travel, regardless of the length, would not automatically disqualify her.
According to UK immigration rules, permanent residency applicants cannot spend more than 180 days at a time or 540 days in total abroad over the course of 10 years. However there are special cases – under Home Office guidelines, time abroad could be waived for visa holders who were absent for academic research purposes.
The University of Cambridge later supplied letters for Islam’s permanent residency application, confirming that the fieldwork was necessary.
Yet in its rejection, the Home Office argued that Islam “failed to provide any exceptional reasons” to support a time-abroad exemption.
Islam, who said the Home Office has refused to engage with the evidence she has provided, then began trying to appeal the decision.
However, her previous visa would soon end. If she were to overstay, she would have been unable to work or rent her home, so she dropped the appeal to avoid becoming jobless and homeless.
She is now on a temporary visa, which will run out in less than three years, when her employment contract ends.
Earlier in February, Islam handed a protest letter signed by more than 2,000 academics to the Home Office.
“Asiya is an outstanding young academic with a promising career in the UK,” the letter says. “Her research is an asset to the UK and its academic community, yet her very success in academic fieldwork is now being held against her.”
Islam said this letter has been met with silence from the Home Office, while Home Secretary Priti Patel has failed to respond to people advocating for her.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, the Home Office did not address these claims, but confirmed Islam was now on a temporary visa.
“There is plenty of evidence to show that my trip was authorised by Cambridge University,” said Islam. “They (the Home Office) have been silent on my case.
“It’s now completely impossible for me to plan anything long-term. This puts me right back to square one, living from visa to visa.”
Academics at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics (LSE) are among those who have backed Islam.
Nikhil Goyal, a US sociologist, tweeted: “This is the legacy of Tory (Conservative) Britain: disgraceful, racist treatment of young academics like Asiya Islam.”
The African Studies Association of the United Kingdom (ASAUK) joined the protest, saying on Thursday it has written to Patel, the home secretary, requesting an urgent review of Islam’s case and that of Furaha Husani, a postdoctoral researcher who was denied a visa last year.
“We have cautioned that these cases cause serious damage to the UK’s reputation and its ability to attract global academic talent at an important time for its relations with the rest of the world,” ASAUK tweeted.
Uncertainty among expatriates is mounting as the UK grapples with its immigration infrastructure, following its departure from the European Union on January 31.
While the ruling Conservatives have promised to lower the number of unskilled migrants from Europe, PM Johnson said at the end of January that he wants to attract the “most talented minds” as he announced a new fast-track “global talent” visa scheme for scientists, mathematicians and researchers.
“There is a discrepancy between what’s being said and what is being done,” Islam said. “It’s not a new thing,” she added, referring to the global talent visa, “it’s just a rebranding of the [existing] exceptional talent visa.
“It’s pretty bad. Everyone is watching this case – they (the Home Office) are not doing what they are saying.”