The Christian missionary charity Youth With A Mission England says that as many as half of its up to 400-strong workforce might have to be sent home after the government suspended its visa sponsorship licence.
YWAM, which at any one time manages between 300 and 400 young people from overseas who come to England and Wales as volunteers to work in, among other things, childcare, teaching English and church-run food banks, had its licence suspended by the UK Visas & Immigration office last month.
It is the latest in a number of Christian charities to have their visa sponsorship licences called into question by the department in recent months. The licences allow organisations to employ people from outside the European economic area and Switzerland in paid or unpaid capacities.
The suspension of YWAM’s licence came after the charity was inspected by the UKVI office in September and clerical issues were identified in two of the seven areas in which it was audited.
Mark Vening, a trustee of YWAM England, said that although the charity quickly rectified the issues, which related to the charity’s migrant record-keeping and failure to update a government website, it was warned that it might have its visa sponsorship status downgraded.
On 23 December the UKVI office said it was suspending YWAM’s licence for 20 working days because of fresh issues that had been identified.
Vening said that UKVI was concerned that YWAM might have failed the resident labour market test, which requires UK visa sponsors to demonstrate that they have tried to fill job vacancies with settled British residents.
But he said the charity could not have failed the test because there was no competition for the unlimited places on its volunteer programmes.
Vening said that if the Home Office decided to remove YWAM’s licence, the charity would have to close a "significant number" of its projects because of the number of workers it would lose. "For us, losing our licence wouldn’t just be the sadness of seeing a few our volunteers go home; it could be up to half of our workforce," he said.
If this happened, he said, the charity would seek a meeting with Home Office ministers in order to challenge the decision. The charity is already urging its supporters to write to their local MPs to express their concern.
"We’re finding that more than one of our Christian sister organisations have lost their licences – there have been appeals and reinstations and people leaving the country," said Vening. "The inspection we had in September was markedly different from any other we had had before. It was gruelling, it lasted seven hours and it was hard to listen to some of the things that were said."
Global Connections, a membership body for Christian organisations, is understood to be aware of several other charities that have had their licences suspended or revoked, and is considering trying to set up a meeting between Home Office ministers and Christian organisations to talk through some of the issues.
The Christian charity Wycliffe Bible Translators had its sponsorship licence revoked in January 2014, and Nations Trust – whose licence was suspended in July but reinstated in December – said on its website that it knew of three large international missionary agencies in the UK that had been "rigorously investigated", resulting in loss of licences for two of them.
A spokesman for Wycliffe Bible Translators said, however, that the loss of its licence had not had much effect on the charity. He said it no longer needed to bring students to the UK from overseas to attend its Masters courses in translation because there were now more facilities for them study back home.
Nations Trust declined to comment.
A Home Office spokeswoman said that YWAM’s licence was suspended because of compliance issues, and that the charity had been invited to submit formal representations against the decision. "We continually and routinely monitor all licensed sponsors," she said. "Where we find evidence that sponsors are not fulfilling their duties, we will suspend or remove their licences."