Ahmed Sedeeq, who is originally from Mosul in Iraq, where he was in danger due to being an atheist, was in the final year of his computer science doctorate at the University of Sheffield when he was detained by visa and immigration officers during a routine reporting session at the Home Office on 18 December.
The 30-year-old had initially come to the UK on a student visa, but following miscommunication with the Home Office – which had reportedly told him his visa was still valid – he ended up overstaying it without realising.
When Mr Sedeeq alerted the University of Sheffield about his detention at Morton Hall immigration centre, he was withdrawn from his PhD studies, despite having paid his tuition fees for this academic year.
Mr Sedeeq has not been told whether or not he will be allowed to complete his PhD. When approached for comment a spokesperson for the university told The Independent that in compliance with the Home Office rules, they had removed him from his studies until they receive written Home Office confirmation in regards to his student status.
After being contacted by The Independent on Tuesday, the university got in touch with Mr Sedeeq and informed him that they had arranged a meeting to discuss the case and that he would have the opportunity to personally meet with Student Support staff.
A spokesperson for the university said staff had been in regular contact with both Mr Sedeeq and his solicitor since they were made aware of the case in December, including liaising with his legal advisors over the Christmas period.
An open letter has now been published, signed by more than 300 academics, urging the Home Secretary and the University of Sheffield to allow him to finish his studies.
Campaigners and friends of Mr Sedeeq accused the university of subjecting international students to the “brutalities” of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy towards illegal immigrants.
Anandi Ramamurthy, an academic at Sheffield Halam University, one of the signatories of the letter, told The Independent: “Ahmed has the right to finish his PhD. He has paid personally at an international-fee rate for his studies and has almost finished.
“It would be a travesty of justice to stop him from completing his PhD.”
Sanaz Raji, member of campaign group Unis Resist Border Controls, who also signed the letter, claimed the university was “colluding” with the Government, saying: “The University of Sheffield cannot claim that they had no knowledge that Ahmed was an asylum seeker.
“They along with the Student Advice Centre at Sheffield Students’ Union knew that Ahmed had applied for asylum in 2014, yet he received little to no support for his dire situation.
“Yet, as a self-funded PhD student, Ahmed paid the University of Sheffield £57,000 in tuition fees.
“The university cannot market itself as a ‘global university’ or even a ‘sanctuary university’ for refugees when it charges outrageously high tuition fees for non-EU international students while colluding with the Home Office by subjecting them to the brutalities of the hostile environment policy.”
She added that over the past year and half the group had seen an increase of migrant students, lecturers and staff fighting detention and deportation.
Alvin Pastore, a friend of Mr Sedeeq qho launched the petition, said the response to it had been "heartwarming", adding: "So many people care about Ahmed and understand he is in need of support.
"His position is not easy, Ahmed is an atheist and his deportation is a matter of life or death. I was really relieved when Ahmed was released, when I met him in Morton Hall he looked really tired and ill."
Mr Sedeeq, who had been working on his thesis which was due in March, said he felt “surrounded by uncertainty” and daunted by the prospect of being detained at any time.
“The amount of uncertainty that’s surrounding me, and the fact that even when they released me the Home Office told me I’m still subject to detention and deportation at any time, is daunting,” he told The Independent.
“It’s really awful knowing that. It’s paralysing my brain to get back into anything. Since I was detained I haven’t even looked at my thesis.”
On the prospect of being deported back to Iraq, he said: “Since people there know I’m an atheist I’d be in a lot of danger. Here I’m surrounded by friends who will value human life regardless of beliefs, but there are people there who would kill a person just because they disagree with their belief."
A spokesperson for the University of Sheffield said: “The University of Sheffield is aware of the recent detention of Ahmed Sadeeq in relation to visa compliance. Our Student Support staff have been in regular contact with both Ahmed and his solicitor since we were made aware of the case some weeks ago, including liaising with his legal advisors over the Christmas period.
"As we have explained to Ahmed, as soon as we have received written Home Office confirmation in regards to Ahmed’s student status, we will be able to restore his university registration and support him to resume his studies at the University of Sheffield.
"We have also made available the opportunity for Ahmed to personally meet with Student Support staff at his earliest convenience and a meeting has now been arranged.