Revealed: Government’s ‘heartless’ treatment of forced marriage victims

Author: By Jerome Taylor

The victims, many of whom will have been through violent and traumatic ordeals
by the time they reach British officials, are being asked to cover the cost
of their flights back to the UK, either out of their own pocket or by
finding a friend who is willing to pay for them.

Under guidelines distributed by the Forced Marriage Unit to civil servants and
diplomats abroad, victims who cannot find enough cash are even being asked
to take out a low interest loan which will only be given to them if they
surrender their passport until the loan is fully repaid.

The emergence of the guidelines comes just days after The Independent revealed
that two of Britain?s most prominent charities working with victims of
forced marriages have had their Government funding slashed. The Honour
Network, which runs Britain?s only national helpline for forced marriage
victims, and the Iranian and Kurdish Women?s Rights Organisation are now
reliant on public donations and say they will have to begin cutting vital
services unless more money can be found.

Opposition politicians last night attacked the repatriation methods as
?heartless? and said that confiscating a victim?s passport until a loan was
repaid was a tactic ?reminiscent of those used by people traffickers.?

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party?s most senior Muslim politician, told
The Independent last night: ?Every forced marriage is a tragedy. These young
people have already suffered enough. They have been betrayed by close
friends and relatives, and now heartless ministers are asking them to pick
up the bill for their rescue.?

The guidelines, which are contained in a 105-page document seen by The
Independent entitled ?Handling Cases of Forced Marriages?, were drawn up
earlier this year and distributed to civil servants involved with forced
marriage cases and victims of so-called ?honour violence?.

In a chapter entitled ?Repatriation?, officials working overseas are warned
that many forced marriage victims will be ?extremely traumatised and
frightened? by the time they arrive or flee to British embassies. Those
seeking the protection of their Government ?may have been held against their
will for many months or years?may have been raped?Sometimes they will have
risked their life to escape.?

But on the same page the guidelines also advise officials to try and recoup
the costs of repatriating the same people back to Britain. ?The Foreign and
Commonwealth Office is obliged to ask the person or trusted friends to fund
the cost of repatriation,? the report states.

On the following page, embassy officials are advised what to do if the victims
cannot pay for their own return home. ?The Forced Marriage Unit in very
exceptional circumstances may provide a loan from public funds to help the
victims return to the UK, but only when all other avenues have been
exhausted,? the guidelines state. ?The victim will have to sign an agreement
to pay the loan in full and will have to secure the loan by giving up their
passport.

Once the loan is repaid in full, the person?s passport will be returned.?
Campaigners have attacked the guidelines, saying that forcing a deeply
traumatised victim to pay for their own repatriation punishes them for
something that happened outside of their control and risks pushing
vulnerable victims back into the hands of the same families they have tried
so hard to escape from. ?It?s insensitive and outrageous,? said Jasvinder
Sanghera, a forced marriage survivor who went on to found Derby-based
charity Karma Nirvana, which runs the Honour Network.

?Imagine if you were a British woman forced into a marriage in Pakistan. You
do everything you can to escape your parents and arrive at the High
Commission in Islamabad utterly terrified. You?ll be in a complete state,
possibly alone from your family for the first time in months and British
officials are asking you to pay for your journey back home.?

Mrs Sanghera was keen to stress that much of the work carried out by the
Forced Marriage Unit abroad should be praised and regularly saved people?s
lives. But she says charging victims to be repatriated was unacceptable. ?If
the victim is under 16 the costs will normally be covered by their Local
Authority,? she said. ?But we have come across a number of older teenagers
who have been repatriated and have then struggled to pay back the loan. Many
have been tempted to return to their parents ? the same parents who thought
it was acceptable to marry them off against their will in the first place.?

The Forced Marriage Unit, which is run jointly by the Home Office and the
Foreign Office, receives approximately 1,600 calls every year, 300 of which
result in repatriation. Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are the most common
countries for British women to be forcibly married abroad in and all the
embassies have a dedicated team that specialise in locating victims.

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