Fraud at language schools for immigrants

Lina: Can I register for the Dutch language course?
Ahmad Abo Rashed: Of course!
Lina: But I can’t attend the classes…
Ahmad Abo Rashed: That’s okay.
Lina: Will I get a laptop or gift card or something for registering?
Ahmad Abo Rashed: Yes, a 350-euro gift card for Mediamarkt.

This is Whatsapp conversation between Lina, a reporter of De Volkskrant, posing as an integrating immigrant, and Ahmad Abo Rashed of Dutch language course provider TaalTalent. You may have questions. As you should. Why would someone want to register for a course without intending to attend? Why would someone on the other side, rather than discouraging this, offer a gift? What is going on here?

Since the investigation, TaalTalent has closed down, but its shocking malpractice is just one instance of a phenomenon growing in severity, spreading across the entire industry of language courses for immigrants.

The logic of the fraud lies in simple math. To enable the integration of status holding asylum seekers into Dutch society, the Government allows a loan of up to 10,000 euros per person for Dutch language lessons. To prevent misuse, this money is not directly given to language course providers, but instead parked with the executive agency for education, DUO. The issue arises, however, if the language course provider and immigrant collude.

It works as follows: the immigrant registers for a Dutch course without the intention to attend. In exchange for signing the invoice, the institute offers the registering ‘student’ a cut – often in the form of a laptop or gift card – while pocketing the lion’s share of the money coming from DUO. It’s a win-win situation for both the provider and the immigrant – no classes are given and none taken. The only loser is DUO.

Such straightforward fraud, which has become more serious since the great influx of Syrian asylum seekers in 2016, has made the language course industry more lucrative, resulting in a swarm of private Dutch language institutes appearing across the country. While offering laptops or overstating the number of hours of education provided have been regular complaints against language institutes for years, their malpractice has seen a recent uptick with the signing of completely fictitious contracts for non-existing courses in institutes that often exist exclusively on paper.

According to De Volkskrant, which acted on a tip-off by whistleblower website publeaks.nl, a majority of such cases takes place within vulnerable communities of new asylum seekers. Most are in financial distress and, often unwittingly, become accomplices for such fraudulent institutes. Unsurprisingly, those who profiteer off the new members of immigrant community are members of the same community, who run many such language schools.

De Volkskrant interviewed an anonymous Syrian about the time he worked for a language institute run by a fellow Syrian. The math was simple: of the 2000 euros that may be declared per student per quarter, 450 euros went to the ‘student’, 50 to him as a commission for the registrations he facilitated, and a whopping 1500 euros to the director of the institute.

The audacity of this operation is demonstrated by the fact that some students are simultaneously registered at more than one (connected) institutes in different cities, since the limit of 2000 euros per quarter applies per person per institute – sucking out the DUO money at an accelerated pace. Yet, no alarm bells start ringing – it seems plausible that the student has moved or wishes to integrate faster by taking more classes.

With fraudulent institutes costing tens of thousands of public euros per quarter, the huge amount of money conned can be deducted from the ‘success stories’ of some immigrant institute owners. Some have inexplicably moved from living at sustenance level to owning a chain of properties and enviable hot wheels.

But what about learning Dutch and passing the Civic Integration Exam? Well! If an immigrant fails the language exam, the municipality may reduce their benefits or ask for part of the tuition fee to be reimbursed, but such instances are very rare. Moerover, a students who fails the exam four times just has to prove that he has spent 600 hours on education, in order to be exempted from the integration exam obligation – by now it should be no surprise to you that these fraudulent institutes are willing to supply such false statements. It serves them too, as if that is all it takes, many such schools can sustain existing largely on paper.

“It’s a lot like a cat-and-mouse game”, says Lidy Schilder, director of Blik op Werk, the body that evaluates whether language schools meet the quality requirements. A student can only pay for lessons through DUO if the school has a certificate from Blik op Werk. In recent years, the requirements for quality certificates have become stricter, but critics of Blik op Werk doubt its power to curb the corruption – its controls are based mainly on what schools put on paper. Being a private foundation, it cannot compel schools to allow inspection visits or insist on insight into their money flow. “We are not an investigative body. However, we can withdraw the quality certificate if schools do not cooperate with our supervision. We also pass on signals of fraud to the Social Affairs Inspectorate”, Schilder claims.

Evidently, this oversight mechanism has its flaws, as the first quality check on the spot can take place only after the school has been active for some time. The provision that an ‘candidate certificate holder’ can submit bills to DUO means that thousands of euros get transferred even before a single quality check has taken place.

As the modus operandi of this fraud is based on sharing of loan money between the institute and the ‘student’, a new requirement for quality certificates came into effect in January this year. This requires each institute’s management to sign an annual statement assuring that benefits such as gifts will not be given. However, it is key to observe what gets translated into practice, rather than just staying on paper, like some of the fraudulent institutes.

Written by Geetanjali Gupta