We must ensure that a fear of cultural sensitivity does not overcome the need to protect the vulnerable.

A recent video surfacing of an immigration lawyer in Bradford advising an undercover journalist of how to bring his ‘son-in-law’ to the UK without his daughter’s knowledge after taking her to Pakistan for a forced marriage has led to a wider awareness of this issue in the UK. The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) have reported supporting 1,196 victims in 2018 alone, with many of these victims then experiencing further trauma on their return to the UK as the Home Office grants them a Spouse Visa UK.

Young women in the UK are the most common victims, with a report stating that 77.8% of cases last year involved young girls being married involuntarily to allow their husbands to enter the UK. A strategy often deployed also involves these girls being sexually abused until they are pregnant. This opens up an opportunity for their husbands to enter the country on a Family Visa, rather than a Spouse Visa without their wife’s knowledge or consent.

Current guidelines assert that Family Visas cannot be applied for to allow parents to enter the UK if they are eligible for a Spouse Visa. Other Family Visa requirements such as shared custody of the child would have to be evidenced before a visa can be granted, which could mean that this route is unlikely to provide success.

The video of lawyer Asama Javed has revealed a failing by the Home Office, however, as cases involving forced marriages are being overlooked. A Freedom of Information Act revealed that there were 175 known instances of ‘reluctant sponsors’, where the UK partner had refused to sign the sponsorship documents. Despite victims explaining that they did not want their spouse to join them for this reason, as well as cases being flagged as suspicious by Home Office officials, only 88 cases were investigated and in 42 a visa was granted anyway.

As part of this system, immigration advisers have a duty to protect vulnerable clients. While anybody can complete an application themselves, immigration professionals understand the operations of the Home Office and can evidently provide advice which abuses the system and leaves thousands open to this dangerous form of trafficking.

While the Forced Marriage Act of 2007 (and its amendment in 2014) mean that the practice is a punishable offence in the UK, criminal charges are very rare. This is most often put down to victims not wanting to prosecute their parents.

Additionally, one of the only ways to ensure that a Spouse Visa is not granted to involuntary partners is by issuing a public statement. While this will protect victims from their often-times abuser, it is not anonymous. This means that the applicant partner will be informed why their visa was rejected and could lead to ‘honour-based’ violence by other family members.

However, the current UK justice system states that, after a criminal investigation, it is the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether a charge is put forward. After applying the Full Code test:

  1. There is sufficient evidence for conviction
  2. It is in the public interest to pursue conviction

The CPS must decide on the course of action to be taken. If there is enough evidence for conviction, this should most often satisfy the ‘public interest’ requirement. This would take the blame away from the victim and even allow victims to assure their families that it is not their decision to pursue a conviction but the state’s. By doing so, the state could protect victims from the threat of ‘honour-based’ violence while also providing a deterrent to parents intending to follow this course of action.

The knowledge that 42 investigated forced marriage visa claims resulted in a visa being granted is also shocking considering the Home Office’s wider treatment of the Spouse Visa route. With draconian Spouse Visa requirements intended to test the ‘genuineness’ of relationships, many genuine couples are unable to receive a Spouse Visa despite providing adequate evidence. Earlier this year, visa appeals reached a 50% success rate for this first time as tighter immigration controls and suspected ‘targets’ at the Home Office have left genuine applicants without a visa and no valid reason for the decision.

It is believed that the Home Office has avoided tackling the issue due to fears of cultural insensitivity or racism but this must be overcome in order to protect those most at risk. Karma Nirvana observes the difference between ‘arranged marriages’ and ‘forced marriages’, stating that at any time an arranged marriage could become forced if one party decided they no longer want to go through with it but are coerced by their families.

At present, the government is doing little to protect this vulnerable group which is mostly made up of young girls. Additionally, last year out of 563 cases where the victim was under 18, 200 cases were reported of victims under 18. Anonymous public statements, which were considered in 2008 could be a useful way to protect victims’ identities. Alternatively, ensuring that all relevant bodies involved (schools, immigration officials and so on) have legislation in place for proper safeguarding and ensuring that a fear of cultural sensitivity does not overcome the need to protect the vulnerable.

Damon Culbert is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service.