Former Apprentice star Saira Khan: 'Why I shopped my cousin to MI5'

We had expected big smiles and hugs. A joyous reunion after two years, which was how long it had been since my husband Steve Hyde and I had seen my cousin Kamran Mumumtaz on a visit to his village in the Pakistan region of Azad Kashmir.

Kamran’s arrival for a six-month holiday in Britain had been eagerly anticipated. After fighting for a year to get his visa, we were excited about showing him our way of life.

Steve and I went to pick him up at Heathrow, along with our one-year-old son Zac, on March 21. We watched as passengers flowed through the arrivals door at Terminal 3. Then we saw him.

disgusted saira khan

Disgusted: Former Apprentice star Saira Khan has hit out at the UK's visa system

He ambled hesitantly towards us. Gone was the gregarious and laughing figure we had grown fond of back in Pakistan. Instead we were greeted by a solemn-faced 26-year-old who looked decidedly uncomfortable.

He stiffly shook our hands and then, to our complete surprise, reached behind us to greet someone else. I spun around to face the interloper.

I hadn’t seen this man before, so I asked: ‘Who are you?’ He introduced himself as Kamran’s uncle, Israr Khan, who had driven over from Hounslow in West London. I wondered why this uncle, on Kamran’s mother’s side, had not bothered to let us know that he was coming.

'My good turn for a relative was about to blow up in my  face'

Steve and I exchanged puzzled looks as the two men walked ahead, engrossed in conversation. At the car park, they shook hands and parted.

It was the first of many signs – which I simply ignored – that my desire to do a good turn for a relative was going to blow up in my face.

It has not only caused a huge family rift, but has also opened my eyes to some of the darker practices among some people in my community.

I am referring, in particular, to the widespread belief that it is entirely acceptable to use travel and study visas to circumvent normal immigration rules.

Fifteen days after he had landed, Kamran packed his bags, with all the nice new clothes I had bought him, and disappeared. In doing so he broke the conditions of his visa, which tied him to staying with Steve and me as his sponsors.

saira's cousin kamran

Vanished: Saira has informed MI5 about her cousin Kamran Mumumtaz, pictured here on a day trip to Westminster before he absconded

Like many before him – it is impossible to say how many because no official records are kept of those who abscond – he has been absorbed and is being protected by a community that is as colossal as it is impenetrable.

The Government has estimated that there are up to 570,000 illegal immigrants in Britain, but with so many visas being applied for with malicious intent, that figure could run to millions. Not that there is any attempt by the Government to chase it down.

Although there are no official figures for the number of overstayers from Pakistan, or from anywhere else for that matter, there is enough anecdotal evidence to show that it is a growing problem. Between 2003 and 2006, at Portsmouth University alone, 379 students from Pakistan were offered places but failed to register.

Considering that the number of Pakistani students in Britain has more than doubled since 2001, from fewer than 5,000 then to 10,600 today, the national figure of absconders could run into several thousand.

'Kamran should be deported'

Immigration Minister Phil Woolas has admitted that the student visa system is ‘the major loophole in Britain’s border controls’, but I think the entire visa system is one big loophole.

And that is largely because I’ve discovered, to my disgust, that there is no system in place to monitor those who fail to go home when their visas expire.

In any case, those who do get caught simply apply for asylum. And the bureaucratic process to deport them is then so drawn out, they invariably end up staying.

I grew up in Nottingham in a very tight-knit Asian community and regard myself as a moderate Muslim.

Although I have since integrated into British society, I’ve maintained my contact with this community through family and friends. I am appalled to learn the extent to which they think it’s OK to bend or break immigration laws.

Saira's family portrait

Family values: Saira, pictured here aged five, was brought up to believe in the importance of helping extended family

I have no idea where Kamran is or what he’s up to. But I was concerned enough to inform the police, MI5, the UK Border Agency and even my local MP. I didn’t want anyone to think that I condoned what he had done.

In fact, Steve and I have withdrawn our sponsorship – a legal undertaking that means we agreed to be responsible for his maintenance and accommodation while in the UK. We have formally made an application to revoke his visa.

As far as we are concerned, Kamran should be deported, sending the message to Pakistan that Britain is not some easy option. 

'A British visa is like a golden ticket to the West'

I want them to know there is a system and if you break it you will be caught and you will be sent back. I take no pleasure in doing this. I am just so angry.

As the daughter of devout Muslim immigrants, I had been brought up to believe in the importance of the extended family – that it was my duty to help those less fortunate.

From the day my parents arrived in Britain in 1965, they regularly sent money home to help those left behind.

So I wanted to give a member of my family an opportunity to experience a different way of life and to open his eyes to the outside world.

I suppose I was being naive not to have realised that to Kamran and his immediate family, a British visa is like winning the lottery. It is a golden ticket to the West.

saira khan

Betrayed: Saira was trying to help her less fortunate family member

The economy in that part of the world is bleak. It is near the epicentre of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and, although no one is starving, job opportunities are very scarce.

It is also where both my parents come from and, indeed, is where my father was buried after suffering a heart attack during his first trip back after 30 years.

Steve and I were married in Britain in 2004 but I desperately wanted to introduce him to my relatives in Kashmir. So we went for six weeks in April 2007.

The welcome we had was astonishing. Kamran played a huge part in making our time enjoyable. He was especially kind to Steve and they played football together.

We were so taken with him that we promised to pay for him to visit England. He was delighted. Our initial application in March last year was declined because the authorities, rightly as it turned out, suspected that Kamran would not go back.

We said we would pay for the return ticket, would feed and clothe him and that we would look after him. I even guaranteed physically to put him on the plane home.

So on November 6, Steve – who runs his own internet marketing company – took a day off work and drove nearly 300 miles to North Shields for the appeal.

The process lasted about an hour and we won. But it took a few more months to get the paperwork sorted.

During that time, Kamran’s father constantly phoned asking that we put pressure on the authorities to speed things up. I became suspicious because of the constancy of his entreaties.

Pakistani friends had also been warning me to be careful that he was not planning to do a runner. I phoned my mother, who was over there on holiday, asking her to emphasise that Kamran was coming just for a holiday.

Only after repeated assurances did we hand over money for the flight. I should have listened to the naysayers. Kamran never intended staying with us in West London, which is probably why he kept his distance from us emotionally.

Nothing we did – not the sightseeing forays, the shopping trips to buy him clothes and including him in celebrations with Steve’s large family – could lift the glumness.

I even enrolled him in a language school so that he could learn English while he was here. I thought it would be a skill that he could use to get a job back home.

The eight-week course cost me £250. Kamran offered to help out by taking Zac to and from his childminder.

We included him in everything we did, but we couldn’t understand his sullenness because he had been so outgoing and friendly in Pakistan. I kept waiting for him to open up, but he remained quiet and distant.

saira with extended family in pakistant in 2007

Saira, left, pictured with other members of her extended family on her 2007 holiday to Pakistan. It was on this trip she got to know cousin Kamran

His uncle from Hounslow, who is a taxi driver, came to visit one night. By then I had learned that the uncle had gained his visa to get into this country by marrying a British girl of Pakistani origin. That’s another route many Pakistanis use to get here.

I warned him that we didn’t want anyone talking Kamran into running off or doing any illegal work. The uncle shrugged and said that Kamran was a grown-up and he would do what he felt was right.

I didn’t like his response, but there was really nothing I could do, even though by then I had become more suspicious of my cousin’s intentions.

On April 6, I was at a business meeting when the childminder called to say that Kamran had not collected Zac as arranged. I rushed home, having tried to call Kamran on his mobile, but the line was dead. I went into his room and it was empty.

I was shocked. I couldn’t believe he had gone. The only thing left in the room was his English book, in which he had written: ‘Sister I came for 15 days only. Today my 15 days are up. I have gone to a friend’s house. When my time is up I’ll go back. The police will not disturb you. I’m sorry.’

'I have no confidence the authorities will do anything'

I felt a deep sense of betrayal. He had broken our trust and played us for fools. I called our family in Pakistan immediately and they said they didn’t know where he was.

But no one there seemed to be upset or worried. I surmised that they had been in on the plan. I called several people in the UK, including his uncle, and all said they had no idea where he was.

I didn’t know what to do, so I called the police who directed me to the UK Border Agency.

Its website is so complicated you need a degree to navigate it, but finally I obtained an email address and sent a message to someone explaining what had happened. I am still waiting for a reply.

I am writing this article because I have no confidence that the authorities will do anything.

My parents brought me up to do the right thing and I am bringing up my child the same way. Telling the truth is important to me. In fact, I would turn in my own brother if he broke the law.

Most Pakistanis talk about blood and clan loyalty. They have no respect for British laws – unless it suits them. They say they are only helping those back home who are less fortunate. 

saira khan
saira with her son zach

Saira, who was a runner-up in the first series of The Apprentice, is now a mother to her one-year-old son Zac, right

But I say that’s wrong and they must realise this, as well as the fact that those who are here illegally often end up being exploited, working long hours for little money, in conditions that are filthy and unhealthy.

More important still is the worry that they might be seduced by extremists to take part in terrorist acts.

I know this might sound dramatic, but it is a genuine concern. Many of these young men come from closed communities with very narrow views about Western behaviour.

They are probably susceptible to persuasion by fanatics. As a moderate Muslim who is outraged at the creeping tentacles of extremism, it is important that I speak out against anything I believe may help to fan the flames.

I am not saying that Kamran is involved in such activities. It is likely that he simply wants to join the black economy and send money home, but I can no longer vouch for him.

Perhaps I should have been more alert. But I acted in good faith in sponsoring him to visit this country because I wanted to help a relative.

Sadly, he betrayed my trust just as tens of thousands of others betray Britain’s trust when they disappear from official view. The systematic breaking of our immigration laws is a dirty little secret for many of Britain’s minority communities.

After my experience, it is a secret I can keep no longer.

Additional reporting: Angella Johnson