Government targets student visa abuse

LONDON (Reuters) - Ministers ordered a shake-up of the non-EU student visa system in a bid to crack down on illegal migrants on Monday, saying it was prone to abuse, and opened the biggest removal centre in Europe to speed up deportations.

The government said the twin-pronged approach was part of a policy aimed at tackling illegal working, sham marriages, bogus colleges, failed asylum seekers and organised immigration crime.

Immigration minister Damian Green said a “thorough evaluation” of the student visa system would be taken over the months to tighten the rules -- part of a broader policy to control levels of immigration.

In a related announcement, Green said he had opened two new wings at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre close to Heathrow Airport, making it the biggest in Europe.

The wings were completely rebuilt after being burnt down by detainees in 2006.

The government said the revamped centre will allow the UK Border Agency to hold and eject the country’s most difficult detainees, the majority of whom were former prisoners and hardened criminals.

“I believe foreign criminals should be sent home at the earliest opportunity, and today we have taken another step I n that direction,” Green said.

Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to reduce non-EU immigration to “tens of thousands” per year instead of the hundreds of thousands seen entering Britain under Labour.

Action to expel students belonging to bogus colleges was also stepped up as figures showed the number of non-EU students coming to Britain jumped by a third to more than 300,000 last year, prompting the government to say the system was floored.

The influx was exacerbated by students bringing with them 31,000 dependants, the Home Office said.

Green said the government wanted to attract the brightest and the best to Britain. But he said in the past there had been “significant abuse of the student route, and we need to ensure that every student who comes to the UK is genuine.”

In February, the former Labour government tightened existing visa rules and closed down 200 bogus colleges to try to stop people using the system to remain and work in the UK illegally.

Under the new rules, applicants from outside the European Union need to speak better English and face tougher restrictions on taking part-time jobs.

The move followed the introduction of Labour’s Australian-style points-based system designed to make it harder for unskilled immigrants to enter Britain.

It is unclear how much tougher the new rules will be. Earlier this year visas for students from Pakistan, Nepal, northern India and Bangladesh were suspended after a big rise in student applications.

Andrew Green, chairman of right-leaning campaign group Migrationwatch, said: “There is growing evidence that the new points-based system has provided a back door to Britain for bogus students.”

Editing by Peter Griffiths