CONTROVERSY: The UK government is charging for the return of forced marriage victims, angering campaigners and politicians

by LAUREN CODLING

A CRIMINOLOGY expert has slammed the UK government for its “morally reprehensible” action of charging overseas victims of forced marriage fees to be safely repatriated back to Britain, as a leading campaigner warned it could deter others from coming forward to seek help.

An investigation by The Times newspaper on Wednesday (2) found young women who had been sent abroad by their families for forced marriages were subsequently charged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for the cost of rescuing them.

Victims who came forward claimed they had been charged up to £740. According to the report, the FCO loaned £7,765 to at least eight victims in the past two years.

Those who are over 18 and unable to pay the fees are made to sign emergency loan agreements before they can board a flight back to the UK.

Victims who have availed of the FCO loans and who are unable to repay the fees within six months are charged 10 per cent interest which is added to their bill. Passports are also confiscated until the FCO loans are repaid.

Some forced marriage victims from overseas have claimed they were told to fees over £700 before they were able to return to the UK

Women affected by the fees said they have been left with little money, with some having to claim benefits or use university loans to fund repayments.

According to the newspaper, two survivors are living in refuges and two have become addicted to drugs since returning to the UK.

Professor Aisha Gill, a professor of criminology at the University of Roehampton, condemned the FCO for their response involving British victims abroad.

She told Eastern Eye that asking survivors to pay up in order for them to be brought back to the UK is “morally reprehensible”.

“We can’t put a price tag on this, because we are putting these individuals in a very dangerous and life threatening situation,” Professor Gill said. “They shouldn’t be punished
when seeking protection from the foreign office.”

The professor, who was an expert witness for the prosecution in the UK’s first successful prosecution for forced marriage last year, said the fee could deter other victims from speaking out.

“[The fees] may have an impact on people coming forward because of the possibility of further harm and the likelihood of being subjected to financial destitution,” she said.

Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom charity, shared Professor Gill’s sentiments. Although
survivors are told they do not need to worry about the money until they are back in the UK, Prem acknowledged the risk of it deterring more victims from coming forward.

Campaigners, such as Aneeta Prem (pictured), have slammed the government for the costs

“If it would deter one person from signing the agreement then that is one person too many,” she said. “They are British citizens, after all.”

Prem, who had previously flagged up the high costs while participating in a BBC Panorama
programme some years ago, revealed young victims had approached Freedom for assistance.

“Some young women have reached out to us,” she said. “These include some of the girls
who have been rescued and told they must pay.”

Other campaigners and politicians have also expressed their outrage at the policies.

Yvette Cooper, Labour MP and chair of powerful Home Affairs Select Committee, said she was “appalled” by the costs, while Karma Nirvana founder Jasvinder Sanghera added it was “shocking” that any victim of crime had to pay to be protected.

Addressing the issue on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had asked officials to give him “proper advice on the whole issue”.

“I have always stressed to embassies and posts abroad that they need to use discretion,” he said.

“Of course, we should behave with compassion and humanity in every situation, but I want to get to the bottom of this particular issue.”

Home secretary Sajid Javid, who vowed last August to “do more” for victims of forced marriage, said the government were doing “an incredible amount to combat forced marriage”.

“With this news it’s something again for us to focus on and make sure we’re doing everything we can,” he said.

A spokesperson from charity Halo Project said the government needs to provide the funds to bring back victims who had no choice, adding “there should be no cost or fear of financial hardship over safety”.

Now that the investigation has gone public, both Professor Gill and Prem said they hoped the charges would be dropped, or an alternative method adopted.

Professor Gill said she hoped the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) will work closely with the FCO to ensure there is a “consistent, robust response” to the issue.

“In order to bring an end to forced marriage, I hope [Jeremy Hunt’s] officials will ditch charging victims as ultimately putting a price on safety erodes the good work being done in the UK on forced marriage,” she said.

Since 2014, forced marriage has been a crime in Britain carrying a maximum seven-year prison sentence.

In 2017, the FMU gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage in 1,196 cases, with 256 (21 per cent) concerning men.

In 2017, 37 per cent of the cases were related to Pakistan, 11 per cent to Bangladesh, eight per cent to Somalia and seven per cent to India.

In response to The Times investigation, an FCO spokesperson said: “Given these are from public funds, we have an obligation to recover the money.

“The [government’s] forced marriage unit provides funding for safe houses and non-governmental organisations to ensure victims of forced marriage can get to a place of
safety as soon as possible. We do not charge British nationals for this service and work with organisations to support them on return.”

RELATED ARTICLES