Miwa Hirono: my Home Office hell

Top academics will be increasingly reluctant to come to the UK, says Hirono, who is being forced to quit Britain despite her permanent post

March 26, 2015
Source: James Fryer

UK higher education has reached a critical moment. Under current immigration rules, universities can no longer guarantee a permanent position for international experts, even when offering permanent contracts – a fact that has serious implications for the health of its academy.

As far as the Home Office is concerned, the immigration status of those on the Tier 2 migrant visa is as “precarious as it is temporary”. When they come to this country, the government agency states, “any private life they have established here should be given little weight…given their precarious immigration status”.

Because of this policy, I am now forced to quit my permanent position at the University of Nottingham after six and a half years of dedication and contribution to the university and to the wider policy and scholarly communities. My family and I will be removed from this country as of next Sunday.

I took up a prestigious five-year Research Councils UK research fellowship in September 2008 to study China’s peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance. The fellowship culminates in an offer of a permanent lectureship, and the university and I signed a contract to that effect in 2008. The fellowship stipulated that I spend up to 100 per cent of my time on research in the first two years. My research required me to do fieldwork in China and in developing regions over which China exerts some influence, such as Africa and Southeast Asia; to present papers at academic and policymaker conferences worldwide; and to take up international visiting fellowships. With the university’s full approval and with RCUK (in other words, UK government) funding, I spent 270 days outside the UK conducting research from March 2009 to March 2010, and 202 days from March 2010 to March 2011. The findings and presentations deriving from all my overseas work were published in prestigious journals and in scholarly books.

In July last year, my application for indefinite leave to remain was refused. The Home Office letter states that this is because of “absences from the UK for more than 180 days” in each of the two periods.

“You have provided a letter from your employer (the University of Nottingham) dated 11/3/2014 which states that you are required to travel around the world for meetings and conferences as part of your duties as an RCUK fellow,” the Home Office says. “The letter also states that the dates you were outside the United Kingdom were all with University approval. However, it is not believed that any of the periods of absence can be considered to have been in any way compelling or compassionate, which would need to be established to enable discretion to be applied.”

Since I received this letter, my professional and personal life has been extremely difficult. To prepare my appeal against the decision, I had to drop all research. Concerned colleagues and professionals – including those from the United Nations, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, thinktanks, the vice-chancellor and other senior colleagues of my university, top academics in various fields including China studies, and local MP Anna Soubry – sent supporting letters to the tribunal and to the Home Office. I emailed my appeal bundle (some 300 pages) to the tribunal as directed, but it was “lost” three times. I consulted with solicitors and hired a barrister. Meanwhile, I continued with normal duties, including teaching and administrative work, despite the demands of the appeal process on my time. I managed by working sometimes through the night or up to 18 hours a day. I was invited to a number of international conferences, but I had to decline because my family’s passports had been retained by the Home Office as part of the appeal process from March 2014. To prepare for the worst-case scenario of deportation, I also had to apply for jobs outside the UK. The only thing that kept me going was the generous support and encouragement I received from my family, friends and colleagues.

I won the appeal on 11 December last year. Judge T. R. P. Hollingworth stated in his decision that “[Dr Hirono] is making an immense contribution to the fabric of this country. I consider that [her] continuing residence in the United Kingdom ultimately benefits the economic wellbeing of the country.” He also wrote: “It is in my view arguable that the vast majority of the Appellant’s absences from the United Kingdom could be seen as ‘compelling’ because all were at a time when she was acting in accordance with her professional obligations to her University employer.” Nevertheless, the Home Office further appealed against this ruling on 29 December 2014, stating that “the Tribunal have failed to identify why the appellant’s circumstances are…compelling circumstances.”

There are strong reasons why the Home Office’s decision to remove us is indefensible.

First, as the judge states, my absences were for compelling reasons. Almost all my time outside the UK in those two years was related to an approved international research agenda. The trips were crucial to gaining a global perspective on a range of matters related to China’s international relations efforts. I was travelling to gain insights into global issues of central concern to the UK.

Second, the 180-day rule has been applied retrospectively to my case and unfairly. I did not break or breach visa rules, as some media reports have misleadingly suggested. There was an immigration policy change in 2012, after my visits overseas. Before the change, I planned to extend my migrant visa, and the 180-day absence rule did not apply. But in 2012 the maximum period of extension became six years, so I had no option but to seek indefinite leave to remain. Under the earlier rules, work-related absences were regarded as “compelling”; but after 2012 this was no longer to be the case. Where in any of this is there natural justice?

Third, my work has significant implications for the University of Nottingham, the UK government and the community of international scholars. A policy recommendation paper on UK-China cooperation, which I wrote with a colleague from the Royal United Services Institute, has been uploaded by the UK government and appears on the government’s website, for example. The UK needs to enhance its understanding of China – a country that presents one of the most important UK foreign policy challenges of the 21st century. What does the UK achieve by removing a China scholar who is willing to work with UK and Chinese policymakers to enhance their cooperation? Surely it is shooting itself in the foot.

Fourth, the decision has had a significant and adverse impact on my family and finances, which represents a contravention of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to respect for private and family life), as the judge admitted in my appeal. For the past six and a half years I have enjoyed working at the University of Nottingham and with the wider UK academic community, both of which have nurtured me as a scholar. Knowing that I had followed all the visa regulations (in accordance with the rules extant at the time), had fully and professionally discharged my duty as a research fellow, and had already signed a permanent contract, my Australian husband joined me two years ago, sacrificing his career at the Department of Defence in Australia and suspending his own PhD programme at the Australian National University. We bought a house in Beeston two years ago, and our son Tada was born in 2013 in Nottingham. Our life in the UK has been severed suddenly because of an inflexible and retrospective application of immigration rules to our case.

But this is not just my problem. The UK’s immigration policy and attitudes to migrants reduce the lives of foreign experts who contribute to the UK to nothing more than a set of immigration statistics. In an effort to meet political and statistical targets, the Home Office is in breach of natural justice. If an offer of a permanent post at a university in the UK is at best “precarious” and cannot guarantee stability and control over one’s professional and private life, top academics will be increasingly reluctant to come to the UK, jeopardising any effort to maintain the global relevance of its academy.

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Reader's comments (5)

Sadly, Miwa doesn't have loads of money, doesn't dabble in overpriced property or dodgy deals with pinstriped spivs, and isn't a raging sociopath. If she were blessed by one or more of these most laudible of character traits, I'm sure the UK would welcome her with open arms. As it is, she's just an easy target for a government that both panders to gutter press xenophobia and indeed wallows in it. The law is an ass.
Miwa, First of all, let me say that my thoughts are with you. Having gone through something similar in the past, i can imagine what you are going through. I work in a University here in the UK and once had a Home Office issue. That said, a lot of immigrants have gone through similar challenges and while some like myself, found a way (switching to another visa category) to remain in the country, others have had to leave with their families. One thing i learned from that experience is to always have a plan...and then another plan. After that experience, every visa application I made had an alternative plan behind it just in case my application was refused because a new rule, which I ever considered, was being thrown at me. These days, with the way these politicians were going on and on about immigration, i suspect that a lot of people, hard working and honest people, are going to get caught in some kind of trap that would see their stay here terminated. I would say that while you have the strength to try and fight this, keep a little of that strength for alternative plans, job applications and maybe another move to another country. I believe that with your skills and experience, many other countries will be willing to welcome you with open arms. Eventually when you think back to this experience, you will laugh it off as one of those things that people go through in life to make them stronger! I wish you all the best
Unfortunately Miwa has become the victim of the Daily Mail peddled nationalist, anti-immigrant, political ideology, which sees Home Office staff lawyers being obliged to appeal every immigration tribunal success. The fool proof way they have found to do that is to state, as clearly was done in Miwa's case, that the Judicial decision maker has not "clearly identified the reasons for their decision". If my students can clearly see the reason for the decision, surely these well paid Home Office lawyers can – and of course they can, but by appealing on this ground, they can guarantee returning the case to the courts. What the Home Office then hope will happen is that those people, like Miwa who are fighting for their right to stay, will run out of energy, and (more to the point) the money to continue their fight, and return to their home countries. Only those fortunate, ‘unfortunate few’ asylum seekers whose only form of income is food vouchers and so qualify for some form of legal aid, can conceive of continuing the endless battle. They then have to go through an appeal hearing - generally a farce which they then losing on some similarly ridiculous issue – in order to seek permission to further appeal their application to stay in the UK to what is known as the ‘Upper Immigration Tribunal’ but which in reality is a subset of the Supreme Court. If they get that far, they will discover that quite often the Home Office will then give up – not wanting the costs of the specialist barristers needed to fight a case in the Supreme Court - and find a basis upon which the person can stay in the UK. We are seeing that, without any oversight, the rule of law, and any idea of justice being undermined repeatedly by this current government. The real question is whether any post-election, new regime, will have the guts to shelve this blatant lying by Home Office staff, and actually respect the high quality of decision made in the Immigration Tribunal, and treat applicants with the fairness the rest of us expect from our justice systems. I do believe that Miwa would probably lose any initial appeal, but I also think that if you can hang on in there (and maybe use the Free Representation Unit for legal advice) you would undoubtedly win in ant appeal to the Upper Tribunal as a. Laws cannot lawfully be applied retrospectively within the UK's (albeit unwritten) constitution and b. the Home Office knows that and is likely to reconsider its opinion if you successfully apply to appeal a decision at the |Upper Tribunal.- And me very very best wishes for your future life, no mater where it might take you.
Dear Miwa, I and your other friends and colleagues here at Nottingham will miss you dearly. The Home Office's decision is indefensible, and it is frightening to think that Cameron has put forward the architect of this draconian policy, Theresa May, as a possible successor at 10 Downing Street, should the Conservatives prevail in the next election. Your expertise is desperately needed here, on matters of incalculable weight, and you are irreplaceable as a scholar and a teacher. Let us hope that the Home Office will address this injustice, but as a historian of 20th c. immigration, I know that such "soft deportations" have been all too common in the past. Nottingham and the UK's loss, however, is Kyoto's gain. Safe travels and, with luck, a speedy return!
Miwa, This is terrifying! I am also a foreign academic in the UK- I am aware of the difficulties we face but I never expected a scenario as horrible as your's! I came to the UK for my PhD, during which I built a life in the this country. I am now a post doc and I also travel a lot for my research - it is all field based, investigating earthquakes in Italy. It is a real shame that it has come to this, and I hope you know that you are not alone and you have the support of UK-based academics.. you would think that would be enough for the Home Office, given that we are almost fully funded by the UK government! Good luck, and I hope that your obvious talent benefits the nation that is willing to host you permanently.