English-language schools shouldn't help facilitate illegal immigration
Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30
The Government is finally attempting to clampdown on rogue English-language schools by introducing a raft of new regulations. The recent review of the language school sector made the Department of Justice conclude that while most colleges were reputable educators, others acted as "little more than visa factories, willing to engage in the outright falsification of attendance records". The highly irregular activities of some language schools have been apparent for years - and yet successive governments chose largely to ignore them. The Government reforms are designed to protect our shaky reputation in the sector.
But nobody is talking about how many illegal migrant workers have disappeared into the undergrowth from the bogus schools we permitted.
The new rules include reducing the number of courses offering visas to overseas students and all English-language programmes will have to prove they meet acceptable standards. There are also plans to protect students' payments to avoid them being left out of pocket if a school goes out of business and ownership of a school will need to be fully disclosed. More than 16 English-language schools have closed here over the past year.
This year's closures have meant that some students found the school they came to attend had closed even before they arrived, and the fees they have paid may not be refunded. While others, who are completing their studies, have found that with their school's closure they may receive neither qualification nor credit for their study time.
I've worked on and off in the industry for more than a decade and saw that the relatively unregulated field of English-language learning allowed plenty of room for fraud. Low fees attracted large student numbers - and all too often this facilitated easy access for migrant workers less concerned with language learning than earning a better living here.
You see, the student visa system became a weak point in our immigration laws and was known to be so by pretty much everyone, except, it seems, those who were actually running it.
Why trek across mountains and brave tempestuous seas or risk trying to stow away in a ferry if you can achieve the same objective - entry into Ireland and the EU - by a means that is relatively comfortable and entirely legal? The price of coming to Ireland under the real or feigned pretext of studying was very often not higher than paying someone to organise illegal entry.
And the requirement that all students be able to support themselves was easily bypassed, as the same sum of money was shuttled between bank accounts. Even the academic requirements weren't at all rigorous, given the proliferation of self-styled colleges. So migrants arrived on a student visa and never went home. There is still no check to ensure they ever do leave.
The students I've met over the years serviced the legitimate economy, from corner shops to cafés, care homes to factories. This is happening because we turn a blind eye to the tax evaders who employ them. For the period January to the end November 2014 almost 49,500 people were given permission to be in the State as students.
It's impossible to know just how many of these translate into illegal migrant workers once their student visa expires, but the Migrant Rights Council of Ireland estimates that there are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented migrants living and working here.
This is not just a matter of Department of Education regulating schools. It's not just a matter for the immigration authorities. We also need to enforce all employment and tax laws to stop luring these kinds of illegal migrant workers here. Legal migration is a matter for political decision-making, but the door can be shut on illegals by protecting all employees from exploitation and low wages. Taking on illegal migrants would be far less attractive to employers if they had to be treated equally.
This can only happen if all Government departments work together and we start to think about offering work visas to non-skilled workers so that they don't have to continue the pretence of coming here to study English. "Retaining the status quo is not an option," said Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. It isn't. Now we need to ensure these new reforms are actually implemented.