The British government has launched a probe into claims officials are failing to scrutinize visa applications from foreign men whose British-born Muslim wives have been forced by their families to marry them overseas.
Campaigners say even when women, many of them teenagers, have objected to their spouses being issued visas to join them in Britain, officials all too often ignore their opposition.
An investigation by The Times newspaper outlining cases in which British officials appear to have compounded the victimization and abuse of women forced into marriages has prompted the country’s interior minister Sajid Javid to launch an inquiry, saying forced marriage is a “despicable, inhumane, uncivilized practice that has no place whatsoever in Britain.”
He added in a tweet, “We will be doing more to combat it and support victims.”
Figures released to The Times under Freedom of Information laws showed that last year, Britain’s Home Office received 175 inquiries from spouses or third parties trying to block visas being issued. Eighty-eight developed into full cases. They included direct appeals from women or objections from others who feared the marriages had been forced.
Visas were issued in 42 of the cases, while another 10 are pending a final decision.
Many unreported cases
But charities say those cases are the tip of the iceberg, and thousands of women, mainly from South Asian backgrounds, are being coerced into marriages that often become highly abusive, involving rape and domestic violence. The government’s Forced Marriage Unit, part of the Foreign Office, received reports of nearly 2,000 possible cases of women being forced into marriages overseas last year.
Laws were introduced in England and Wales in 2014 criminalizing forced marriage. But campaigners say some immigration officials are “turning a blind eye,” concerned they may be criticized for being culturally or religiously insensitive for mistaking an arranged marriage for a forced one.
Labor lawmaker Naz Shah from the Yorkshire town of Bradford said the laws need to be changed to help ease the plight of British Asian women trying to block abusive spouses from gaining visas and joining them in Britain. Bradford has the third largest British Asian population in the country.
She expressed frustration to a British broadcaster, saying, “There is nothing racist about highlighting the fact that a girl is being forced into a marriage or protecting that victim. Abuse is abuse, regardless of any cultures, and that needs to be understood loudly and clearly.”
Shah and the charities say among the legal changes needed is to do away with a requirement for officials to inform a foreign spouse, if his wife doesn't endorse his visa application. That information can lead to further abuse by the families of women who try to block the issuance of a visa, including exposing them to honor-based violence.
Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom, a charity opposing forced marriage, told Reuters, “It is a very typical case that girls are forced into marriage, and then when they come back to the U.K., they are forced to put in a spousal application for their abuser.” Campaigners say most of the forced marriages are taking place in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and the United Arab Emirates.
Some progress made
Gerry Campbell, a former Scotland Yard detective and a director of the Sharan Project, a charity that helps vulnerable women, particularly of South Asian origin, said in a tweet the government has done some “excellent work on tackling forced marriage over the years. It must, however, be relentless as is the case with other forms of violence against Women and Girls.”
Last month, a court in Yorkshire sentenced a couple from Leeds to eight years in prison for forcing their teenage daughter to marry. In 2016, the 18 year old was told she had to marry an older cousin in Pakistan. When she refused, she was assaulted, and her father threatened to kill her.
She was helped to escape by armed police after British diplomats were tipped off about her plight. After her parents were sentenced, the girl said, “I know I will always have to remain cautious, but knowing those monsters are going to be in prison, I feel the uttermost freedom in my heart.”
The conviction is the second in Britain for forced marriage. In May, a woman was jailed in the British town of Birmingham for trying to force her 17-year-old daughter to marry a relative twice her age in Pakistan.