I had never heard the phrase “hostile environment” until I moved to the UK in 2016, just a few months before the Brexit vote. I assumed - perhaps naively, perhaps arrogantly - that this hostility was reserved for vulnerable refugees, illegal immigrants or convicted criminals like the 42 detainees who the Home Office tried to deport to Jamaica last week.
I never thought prejudice, hostility and racism could directly affect me. I didn’t come to Britain to “play the system” or to “take your jobs” but to invest millions of pounds in the economy and create jobs on a Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa. As a sign of the shifting mood in the country, this kind of visa is now cancelled, and has been replaced by an “Innovator and Start Up” visa (approximately only one of these visas per month was issued after its introduction).
In its rush to create “fortress Britain,” the UK it seems has pulled up the drawbridge for wealthy, law-abiding foreigners like me.
To a young boy growing up in provincial Russia, Britain meant integrity, transparency and rule of law. I left Russia because, however much the country has developed in recent years, there was always the threat that corruption could take away everything I have worked so hard for.
I never imagined that the same strong-arm tactics, bureaucracy and Kafka-esque bullying would uproot my planned life and business career in Britain - but this is exactly what has happened. I had heard disquieting things before moving to Britain - about the police being “institutionally racist” and of a rising anti-Russian sentiment - but I never thought it would affect me personally.
Then in April 2018, my worst fears came true. Whilst I was out of the country, the police secretly applied to a court to seize my UK bank accounts, including almost £1.6 million (€1.9 million) in personal savings and working capital held in my business account. The reason? A fraudster had used an account held on my Fintech platform to receive money for a fake plane ticket to Nigeria, and two non-existent used cars which were advertised on eBay.
I know that the police have the power to freeze bank accounts when they belong to a known criminal, or when there is reasonable suspicion that they are “ill-gotten gains.” These are powers I respect and support, but surely they are not applied to founders of Fintech platforms which happen to be used, on occasion, by a fraudster? Surely a judge would only act in this way if they had been misled or misinformed?
To my shock, the police admitted that they knew I was merely the owner of an online finance platform, rather than the person selling the fraudulent goods. Surely if financiers and bankers are held personally responsible when their systems are used by lone fraudsters, bosses at PayPal or Lloyds Bank, for instance, would also have their personal assets seized as soon as someone used one of their accounts fraudulently?
In court, as I was financially attacked “ex parte” (meaning I was not even informed that I was essentially on trial in my absence), I was described as a “mysterious Russian” whose “whereabouts are unknown.” This is despite, at the time, having regular and close dealings with bodies such as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), from whom my business received authorisation to operate. I also employ 400 staff in ten countries including, at the time, the UK, so I would have expected the police to perhaps call the UK tax authority, HMRC and ask how much corporation and income tax I generate (I’m sure the court would have appreciated this information, had it been made available to them).
Not just HMRC, but anyone who I have had professional contact with - from Liverpool FC to the Financial Conduct Authority - could have dispelled any sense of “mystery” surrounding me, if only the investigating officers had asked them.
But they didn’t ask - and now the damage is done. They caused the loss of my UK business, and forced me and my family to relocate (recipients of Entrepreneur visas are only welcome for as long as their business is operational).
This attack on my reputation, my family life and my livelihood has taken its toll. I am now forced to spend extended periods away from my wife and daughters. I have developed ankylosing spondylitis (AS), an autoimmune disease for which there is no cure. As well as the disease causing me to be absent from the UK for lengthy periods (which was used to cast suspicion about my business), the ongoing stress has worsened the condition.
None of this, however, has convinced Merseyside Police’s top brass to expedite the conclusion of the police’s enquiries. In 2014, I invested almost £2 million (€2.4 million) in a sponsorship deal with Liverpool FC. It is why I chose Liverpool as my UK base in the first place, meaning that my affairs were investigated by Merseyside Police, rather than the City of London police, for instance, who are more familiar with cases like mine.
Last September, I completed a similar sponsorship deal with a German Bundesliga side. This “mysterious Russian” had Britain as his first choice for a safe haven for both his investments and his children's futures. But due to circumstances beyond my control, I am currently enjoying German efficiency rather than Scouse hospitality.
Ildar Sharipov is an international entrepreneur, working in the financial sector since 2007.
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