“I have put her as your wife, so take her.”
As Ratha, a Sri Lankan rice farmer, stood at Colombo Airport waiting for his ticket to the UK, the job recruiter gestured to a woman he had never seen before.
“Unless you go with her, you will have trouble and your money will not be returned,” he was told.
Ratha had paid this man – who he believed to be a recruitment “agent” – £50,000 for passage to the UK, selling property that had been in his family for generations.
But in being forced to pose as someone’s fake husband, he claims to have fallen victim to criminal gangs exploiting the UK’s skilled worker visa system.
While Rishi Sunak has made stopping English Channel small boat crossings one of his key priorities, Sky News can reveal allegations a legal route is being used for people smuggling.
Criminal gangs are using Britain’s need to fill jobs by using the skilled worker visa system as a route to move people to this country. Under the scheme, someone who has been offered a job in the UK is allowed to bring dependents with them.
But Sky News has been told about multiple cases where the entitlement to bring dependents on a skilled worker visa is being abused.
The hefty price tag
Ratha says he paid the money because he believed it would result in a job, and eventually, permanent residency in the UK.
The woman who pretended to be his wife – the owner of the work visa – has now disappeared.
He is staying with friends in Staffordshire because his relatives don’t want him to be alone, fearing for his mental health.
He claims he was fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, and was unaware he would be travelling as a fake dependent on someone else’s work visa before he got to Colombo airport.
“I thought I was the only one travelling. At the entrance of the airport I was told to wait then a woman arrived,” says Ratha.
“The agent said: ‘I have put her as your wife, so take her’.”
At first, he refused to go along with the plan but he claims to have been threatened and refused a refund.
The fake son
With Ratha came a 19-year-old, who says he pretended to be his son.
His name is Hinthujan and he’s now living in Liverpool. He cuts a fearful, lonely figure.
His family spent their life savings on his journey to the UK hoping he could join their relatives in the city’s Sri Lankan community.
Hinthujan says he had no idea what was happening until he got to Colombo Airport, where he was forced to partner with a fake father and mother.
Unable to speak a word of English, he is now an asylum seeker after the group were questioned and detained at Heathrow Airport.
“There are lots of problems going on in Sri Lanka. It is not possible to stay there – that is why we came,” he told Sky News via a translator.
“I was scared when [the agent] told me, ‘If you say they are your mother and father, there will be no problem’.”
‘I felt scared but couldn’t do anything’
When Mrs A turned up for her flight from Sri Lanka to the UK, she says the people she paid £65,000 to for a work visa handed over her permit, flight tickets – and a 12 year-old boy.
“It was a shock,” she says. “It was all last minute. I felt scared but couldn’t do anything about it. They guaranteed there wouldn’t be any problems.”
After they landed at Heathrow Airport, the boy was met by people Mrs A didn’t recognise and she never saw him again.
Mrs A – who asked not to be identified – said the visa was issued by the British High Commission in Sri Lanka.
“It was only after I arrived in the UK that I realised it was a big mistake. I know I’ve been used.
“The boy already knew he was coming into the country but I didn’t know.”
Mrs A handed over the sum of money believing the agents would find her work in the UK – and that she didn’t need to speak English.
She was offered a job by a care company and then provided with a Certificate of Sponsorship by the Home Office enabling her visa. But it’s a basic requirement for people coming to work in the UK as carers on skilled worker visas to speak English.
Mrs A can’t read, write, or speak English and has no qualifications. But a fake certificate used by the gang to apply for a job lists her as having a “very good pass” in an English exam.
Sky News has obtained the false documents submitted to the care agency with her job application. They include a nursing diploma and fake certificates for biology, physics and chemistry.
Her fake CV boasts she spent seven years “providing direct nursing care to patients in a busy hospital ward environment” – and two years providing care to patients in a home for the elderly.
It says she’s skilled at safe patient handling and first aid.
None of this is true.
What are skilled worker visas – and how many are granted each year?
In February 2022, the Government changed the rules for those wanting to come to the UK to work, making it easier for those from abroad to apply.
It expanded the Shortage Occupation List and removed the requirement to prove that UK residents were unable to fill any listed roles. Care Support Worker is the lowest-skilled job on this expanded Shortage Occupations List.
The Migration Advisory Council’s annual report recommended the change, as well as setting a minimum salary of £20,480 per year.
The government agreed with this recommendation at the time “to help ensure short-term sustainability as social care builds back from the pandemic”.
Last year, almost 150,000 people came to the UK last year on skilled worker visas.
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‘People sell everything and end up with nothing’
Zeena Luchowa, from the Law Society Immigration Committee, said: “It’s extremely alarming and concerning that we have a system that is not catching exploitation at this level and there needs to be some way of the home office reviewing its systems to look at what’s not working here.”
Sky News contacted the firm Mrs A thought she was coming to work for. It said they had no idea the documents used for Mrs A’s application by the recruiters in Sri Lanka were fake.
Care England represents the largest number of independent adult social care providers in the UK. It confirmed that there is no “specific requirement” for any healthcare-related qualifications to come to this country as a carer. But it is a requirement to speak, read, write and understand English to at least an intermediate level.
Mrs A’s legal adviser said: “The British government needs people. But the criminal gangs use this work permit legal system for their own benefit to make a lot of money.”
Meanwhile, he said, people from other countries “sell their jewellery and property, give it to criminal gangs and end up with nothing. They come here and can’t work, can’t rent and end up on the street.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are actively investigating the claims made.
“Abuse of our immigration system will not be tolerated. Anyone who has used false documents, misrepresented their personal circumstances or practiced deception by any other means will have their application refused and may face a ban on making further applications for up to 10 years.”
The Home Office is now reviewing its processes to try to prevent future abuse of the skilled worker visa system.
‘I sold everything three generations of my family worked for’
Vinothan is another Sri Lankan who has joined the UK’s backlog of asylum seekers. The job he thought he was coming to do didn’t work out.
Vinothan, his wife and two young children are now living in a friend’s spare room. He claims the family can’t return to Sri Lanka because they’ve been threatened by the criminal gangs who arranged their working visa to the UK.
He paid £26,000 to people in Sri Lanka for a full-time job offer to work as a carer at a British company – not the same one Mrs A applied for.
On induction day, Vinothan says he got a uniform but no paid work. He claims not to have been told before leaving Sri Lanka he would have to do unpaid training for an unspecified period of time.
As he is now in dispute with the company, his Certificate of Sponsorship to work in the UK has been withdrawn.
Wiping away tears, he explains that the money was his family’s entire life savings – after they sold everything, including land and jewellery.
“£26,000 is a very big amount for us from Sri Lanka. My grandfather’s and grandmother’s jewellery and three generations earned that. Now I don’t have anything. It’s all gone. [The criminal gangs in Sri Lanka] have cheated me.
“How can I get that back?”
Reporting by Lisa Holland
Production by Nick Stylianou and Megan Baynes
Edited by Serena Kutchinsky