An investigation by The Times has caused charities and stakeholders to accuse the Home Office of failing to protect British victims of forced marriage overseas.

Immigration rules affecting victims of forced marriage have been the subject of criticism in the sector, with figures obtained by The Times bringing new attention to the issue. Human rights charities Karma Nirvana and Freedom, and Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, are amongst those who have spoken out on the issue.   

Once married, the foreign spouses may apply for spouse visas under the family visa regime. The Times has reported that women in forced marriages are being kept abroad until they are pregnant and then returned to the UK so that their child will be born a British citizen to enhance the father’s visa application. 

Here we look at the issue of family visas for non-European Economic Area (EEA) spouses of forced marriage victims, the relevant immigration rules and policy, and parliamentary discussion. 

What has the Home Office said?

Following the publication, a Home Office spokesperson stated: “The UK is a world-leader in tackling the horrendous crime of forced marriage, and work to combat it is an integral part of our cross-Government Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy, published in March 2016. 

“We take our safeguarding responsibilities very seriously. If an individual refuses to act as the sponsor for a visa application then under the immigration rules, that visa should not be issued.” 

Forced marriage

The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) defines forced marriage as: 

One in which one or both spouses do not (or, in the case of some adults with learning or physical disabilities or mental incapacity, cannot) consent to the marriage and violence, threats, or any other form of coercion is involved. Coercion may include emotional force, physical force or the threat of physical force, and, financial pressure. 

It is a criminal offence to force someone into marriage.  

FMU reported that it handled cases of forced marriage in 2017 occurring across 65 countries. The four countries where it gave the most advice or support on cases were Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and India. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of forced marriage, but it is also perpetrated against men. Of the 256 men that the FMU gave advice to in 2017, approximately 25% had learning disabilities.  

Forced marriage and immigration  

Non-EEA spouses of British citizens and those settled in the UK may be eligible to apply for a family visa from overseas or from within the UK. Spouses coerced to endorse a family visa application due to forced marriage are referred to as ‘reluctant sponsors’ by the Home Office.   

Victims who want to block visa applications for spouses must sign a disclosable public statement, which may put them at risk from their family. They can do this with help from the FMU which will also outline the risks and consequences of making such a statement. Third parties may also notify the Home Office of potential abuse.  

However, many victims of forced marriage do not come forward and underreporting is rife.  

This is not a new issue. Stakeholders, charities and the UK Border Agency (now UKVI) have debated amending visa application procedures to allow reluctant sponsors to make confidential statements. This is procedurally difficult as refused visa applicants are entitled to the reasons for their refusal.  

The founder of charity Karma Nirvana, Jasvinder Sanghera told the Times: ‘We’re seeing this nationally. Even when officials know it’s a forced marriage, they see tradition, culture or religion and they’re reticent to deal with it. They are turning a blind eye.’  

Issuing visas

The data obtained by the paper shows that the Home Office granted 47% of visas in cases where they had been notified of potential abuse.  

However, in the House of Lords on 6 September 2018 Baroness Williams of Trafford stated: “…a large majority of the 42 visas issued were referred to the Forced Marriage Unit by UKVI, rather than being the result of a reluctant sponsor. I thought that I should just correct that information which appeared in the Times.” 

The Home Office also responded: “There are a number of reasons why cases are referred to the forced marriage unit, not all of which are the result of a reluctant sponsor getting in contact. In some cases it will be decided, following enquiries, that no further action is necessary and a visa will be issued.” 

Home Affairs Committee response

Yvette Cooper, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, addressed the investigation’s findings on forced marriage. In a letter to the Home Secretary, dated August 2, she said: 

“It is of considerable concern that the Home Office does not appear to have taken heed of our predecessor Committee’s warnings on this matter, and despite a number of years having passed, little progress has been made to better protect victims of forced marriage.  

“The investigation reports serious failings to individuals who have volunteered this information, yet in nearly half of the cases (47%) the report says visas were issued regardless. Of even more concern, is that the true number of forced marriages is likely to be far higher but go unreported. These findings suggest that the Home Office is not adequately safeguarding those that come forward nor instilling confidence in others to do so.” 

The issue gained further traction in Parliament last week, in both the Commons and the Lords, with many MPs in the Lords asking oral questions on the matter. At the time of writing, there has been no public announcement of a Home Office response to the Home Affairs Committee.  

Further reading:

Immigration detention in the UK: an overview, House of Commons Library.

Migration statistics: Where do they come from? House of Commons Library.

Hannah Wilkins is an Immigration and Asylum Researcher at the House of Commons Library.