A Day in the Life of Southall Black Sister’s Advocacy Team on the Forced Marriage Repatriation Service
We receive an email from the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) referring a case to our forced marriage repatriation service. A young British-Pakistani girl is due to arrive from Pakistan in two days. She is 17 years old and was taken abroad by her mother to be forced into a marriage. She had managed to contact the British Embassy while she was in Pakistan and they helped her to find safe accommodation at a local refuge. She wants to come back to the UK but is terrified that her father, who is still in the UK, will find her and kill her.
The case is allocated to an SBS advocate who contacts the FMU for further information: what time does her flight arrive? Does she have any clothes or money? What are her risk areas in the UK? Does she have any injuries and will she need medical or any other special needs assistance?
The FMU try to obtain as much information as possible but due to the time difference between the two countries, we can only gather limited information about her. An advocate arranges to meet her at Heathrow Airport, her flight arrives at 7:45am. We don’t know if any family members will be present and so arrange with security at the airport to ensure that she knows who we are.
The advocate meets her; she is young, frightened, wearing only flip flops on her feet. It’s raining outside and it’s cold. The advocate speaks to police officers at the Airport and they agree to escort her back to our centre. By this time, it’s already 9am. The advocate talks to her, befriends her and comforts her. She hasn’t eaten for several hours and she’s tired. She’s getting calls on her mobile from an unknown number and she is worried that her father knows she is back in the UK. The advocate gets her some food and warm clothes. She feels better but is still terrified. The advocate sits with her to find out more information about her background: what happened? how is she feeling? Is she frightened? Does she know where her parents are? Is there anyone else she is afraid of?
A second advocate starts looking for accommodation options by ringing round for women’s refuges to see if there are any spaces available that day. Some tell us no, others tell us to call back later; some say she is too young, others need more information. As an alternative, in case she cannot enter a refuge, we contact social services for assistance as we regard her as a vulnerable young person, but they tell us that she is not their responsibility; they want more information about her and want to know if she was involved with social services previously.
While the first advocate carries out a detailed risk and needs assessment of her circumstances, a social worker makes her way to our centre, having agreed to meet her. She tells us that she cannot help the girl because she is not from the area; she asks us if she wants to go back to her family. The girl is worried that her family may become involved, and so decides that she doesn’t want any support from social services. She explains that social services have been involved with her family from a young age as all of her siblings have been assaulted by their father. She is afraid that the social worker will send her back there. We reassure her and tell her that we will support her instead.
The second advocate continues contacting refuges and they have many questions: How will she get to us? Does she have any money? The refuge staff finish work at 5pm, will she be here before that? Is she entitled to welfare benefits?
It is now 3pm. One refuge agrees to take her and a sympathetic refuge worker agrees to stay back until she reaches there safely. The advocate accompanies her and puts the girl on a train to the refuge. We let the refuge know that she’s on the way. The advocate stays in touch with her to make sure she is safe on the train. At 6pm, we receive a phone call; she has arrived at the refuge. She is safe.
We stay in contact with her over the following days, the refuge worker tells us that she looks better; she has colour in her cheeks and is eating properly. We help her to instruct family lawyers to take out a Forced Marriage Protection Order against her parents which will protect her from any further attempts by her family to force into a marriage or to harass her and we attend her appointments with her to give her emotional and practical support so that she understands what the legal proceedings will involve. The order is served on her father in the UK; after that the calls from the unknown number stop.
We advise her to think about her options, what does she want to do? What are her interests? Where does she see herself? We encourage her to go back into education. The contact becomes less frequent over the following weeks; she has made new friends and found a new network of support. We hear from her after a few months, she is back in full time education. She is excited and happy. For the first time, it’s all about her. Because it’s her life and it’s her choice.
In the meantime, we continue to work with other girls or young women repatriated back to the UK. They receive advice, counseling and support and engage with our group therapy sessions. We guide them through the processes involved in getting permanent housing and welfare benefits. We support them to resolve any legal proceedings that they wish to initiate and obtain forced marriage protections orders and, if they are very young, we make applications for them to be made wards of court, which means that they are under the protection of the courts, particularly if they are high risk or social services do not provide adequate support. We help them to obtain a job, go back to school or college, or (re-)enter a university. We empower them to become independent, self confident and most of all, free from violence and abuse.
Photographs: Nigel Nicholas