A pall of gloom descended over thousands of doctors of Indian origin in Britain - many of them reduced to scrounging for free meals in temples and gurudwaras - after they lost a case Friday against changes in immigration rules that make it virtually impossible to gain employment in the country's National Health Service (NHS).
Many doctors who had found temporary employment now face the prospect of returning home, while others waiting to find employment find one more door closed. Until Friday, thousands of doctors from India and outside the European Union who passed qualifying British tests had been living in penury and hope in parts of London and elsewhere.
The changes to the rules were announced on March 7, 2006, and came into force on April 3, 2006. The changes abolished permit-free training and made it mandatory for doctors from outside the European Union to obtain a work permit to gain employment in the NHS.
The NHS has historically attracted a large number of doctors from India and other Commonwealth countries. But the situation changed for them with a larger number of British graduates passing out from medical schools, and nationals of an expanded European Union having the right to work in Britain.
On Friday, Lord Justice Stanley Burton of the High Court of Justice of Queen's Bench Division did not accept that there were sufficient grounds to support the claim that the changes in the immigration rules or the subsequent guidance given by the Department of Health were unlawful.
The outcome is expected to set a precedent for two more judicial review petitions relating to changes made to the Highly Skilled Migrants Programme (HSMP) and raising the qualifying period for permanent settlement for immigrants on work permits from four years to five years.
The immigrants affected under these categories - many of them Indians - have initiated the legal process, but the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) judgement has now made them less hopeful of a positive outcome.
The case for a judicial review of affecting doctors was filed by BAPIO, which represents the large number of doctors from the Indian subcontinent working in the NHS. It was filed jointly with Imran Yousaf, a doctor who had been affected by the changes and who reportedly committed suicide recently.
Raman Lakshman, BAPIO's vice chair (Policy), told IANS: "This (judgement) we believe will have a devastating and profound impact on thousands of International Medical Graduates (IMGs) whose hopes for progressing on a better career path are dashed. Many will have to return to their country of origin with disappointment about the NHS.
"IMGs, a majority of whom come from the Indian subcontinent, have been the backbone of the NHS for many decades. The new rule treated them despicably and with no concern for their welfare. This was always morally wrong and we are disappointed that this has not been found to be legally wrong.
"I do not see a future in the UK for young doctors from India who are not already in a training programme. We would ask young doctors to consider very carefully their options and not damage their careers by taking up jobs that will not lead anywhere.
"BAPIO is disappointed that the verdict has provided no relief to thousands of IMGs whose careers are being destroyed by the new immigration regulations which came into force on April 3, 2006.
"We are surprised that the court does not agree with us that the Department of Health guidance misrepresents the effect of the Immigration Rules and it is an illegitimate attempt to amend the rules, thereby circumventing the requirements of section 3(2) of the Immigration Act 1971."
However, the BAPIO said that verdict gave some comfort about the Home Office not complying with the requirements of the race relations legislation and the acceptance that no consultations were held before the changes were announced.
Lakshman said: "It is disappointing that the judge concluded that there was no obligation on the government departments to consult. It leaves voluntary organisations such as ours, in some serious doubts about genuineness of consultations that are designed to encourage greater engagement for influencing policy development".
Commenting on petitioner Yousaf's death, the Voice of Britain's Skilled Immigrants (VBSI), a forum campaigning against various changes to immigration rules affecting a large number of professionals, most of them Indians, said: "On the day when the verdict in the case initiated by Dr Imran Yousaf (and BAPIO) is to be announced, it is very saddening to have learnt of his suicide apparently instigated by the turmoil caused by the Home Office's refusal to grant him a further leave to remain in the UK. We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends".
The immigration changes had created alarm and panic among thousands of doctors from outside the EU, particularly those from the subcontinent. Until then, doctors from outside the EU, including from India, were able to take up NHS jobs under what was called 'permit-free training' schemes.
Their jobs were considered part of training that did not require work permits. Thousands of Indian doctors were employed under the scheme and were usually hired for short-term periods of one or two years. The doctors would need to find new posts after their term expired.
But from April 3, 2006, it was made mandatory for employers to obtain work permits before employing these doctors after making a case to prove that no British or EU doctor could perform the same job.
This rule effectively ruled out any chance of employment for non-EU doctors. The employment situation for Indian doctors was anyway very difficult, with thousands of them unemployed and reduced to living in miserable conditions and availing themselves of free food served in temples and gurdwaras in London and other parts of Britain.
After the outcome of the judicial review was announced, Ramesh Mehta, President of BAPIO, thanked the many hundreds of doctors who had helped raise funds to fight the case. He said: "This is a very sad day. This was a fight to uphold the self-respect of IMGs in the UK. We would like to thank our legal team lead by Rabinder Singh".